TOYOTA GAZOO Racing dominated the opening round of the 2023 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) to earn a one-two victory in the 1000 Miles of Sebring in the face of strong Hypercar competition.
The GR010 HYBRID #7 of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López bounced back from a practice accident on Thursday to take victory after a hard-fought 239 laps at the home of endurance racing in the United States.
After a tense race-long battle at the front, World Champions and 2022 Le Mans winners Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa completed a perfect result for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing by finishing second in the #8 GR010 HYBRID, just 2.168secs behind.
Relentless consistency, flawless team operations and strong tyre management combined as TOYOTA GAZOO Racing overcame the challenge of new Hypercar rivals from Cadillac, Ferrari and Porsche to lap all competitors twice and earn the team’s 40th WEC victory.
Despite missing pole position on Thursday, the team was immediately in the fight at the front when the green flags waved in midday Florida sunshine. Sébastien kept pressure on the pole-sitting #50 Ferrari through the opening laps, while Mike held off a challenge to his third position.
An early safety car, due to a fifth-lap accident for a GT car, put the battle on hold for 25 minutes. During that interruption, the lead Ferrari pitted for fuel, moving the GR010 HYBRIDs to the front and defining the pattern of the race. Sébastien set a new Hypercar race lap record as he and Mike edged clear of the competition.
At the two-hour mark, little separated the GR010 HYBRIDs and their gap over the chasing pack was enough to keep them ahead through the first driver changes. Kamui took the wheel of the #7 and two laps later Brendon jumped into the race-leading #8, although he immediately came under pressure from the sister car.
As half distance approached, Kamui moved the #7 to the front and soon after, early in the fifth hour, he handed over to José. Ryo took the wheel of the second-placed #8 to resume an intra-team battle for victory, with the pair now a lap clear of the competition.
After Kamui and Sébastien returned to their respective cockpits, the gap at the front began to grow during the seventh hour. When Mike took the wheel of the #7 with 47 minutes remaining, he held a 23secs advantage over Brendon at the start of the final stint.
As the sun set on Sebring, Mike ticked off the remaining laps without taking risks and Brendon reduced the gap steadily. The chequered flag flew in darkness and Mike crossed the line 2.168secs ahead of the #8 to conquer the biggest-ever top-class grid for a WEC season-opener and earn maximum race points.
Hypercar battle resumes in Portugal in a month’s time with the 6 Hours of Portimao on 16 April, the second of seven races this season.
Akio Toyoda (Team Founder, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing):
A new season has started with new rivals.
I would like to say "congratulations" and "thank you" to all the drivers and team members who finished this important first round with a one-two finish.
I am particularly happy that car #7 won the race and got off to a good start after they had so many frustrations last season. But that is not the only reason.
Car #7 had some struggles as well during this race week.
When they started running, they fought to improve their lap times.
The drivers and mechanics worked together to pinpoint the issues and make improvements.
And when everything was going well, at the end of practice on Thursday, José had an accident...
The mechanics desperately repaired the car. The other drivers continued to talk compassionately with José so that he could regain his confidence and drive strongly in the race.
Even if the car changes and the number of rivals increases, I once again feel that racing is a team effort.
Since Kamui became Team Principal, the power of the team has definitely grown stronger.
As a driver, Kamui contributes to victory as a driver, and as Team Principal he keeps communication with the members and keeps the team together. So I would like to thank Kamui for both his roles.
Kamui, thank you very much.
I think our rivals will continue to refine their cars and become faster.
Let's keep fighting to make the GR010 HYBRID an "ever-better car"!
Kamui Kobayashi (Team Principal and driver, car #7):
“It is a fantastic feeling to win this race and I would like to thank everyone for their big support, particularly everyone back in Japan, including Toyoda-San and President Sato-San. The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing family has worked really hard to be ready for this season. We had a tough time yesterday, but we came back strongly and in the race we showed our philosophy to be one team, with everyone working very hard together. A one-two was the best result we could hope for, but this is just the start of a big fight this season. We deserved to win but we do not under-estimate the other manufacturers; today our experience helped us but we will face a big challenge this season, so we have to get stronger and fight even harder. This championship is getting really exciting, and I am happy to be part of it.”
Mike Conway (Driver, car #7):
“It’s a fantastic result to start the season with a one-two for the team. The race was very tight between our two cars so I’m really happy to pick up the win. Sebring is a very tricky, bumpy track where it is so easy to make a mistake, but everyone on car #7 did everything right. Kamui and José did a stellar job. It was emotional for me at the end because I was thinking about my Dad, who passed away a year ago. This one was for him.”
José María López (Driver, car #7):
“I am very happy for the team; everyone performed so well today to get a one-two against so much competition. Even though we didn’t have the best qualifying, we knew we had a strong car for the race and our crew did everything right. It wasn’t easy to jump back in the car for the first time since the incident yesterday and it took a few laps to get my confidence back. But I am happy with my stint, and of course Mike and Kamui did a solid job as well. It was a perfect race and the best way to start the season.”
Sébastien Buemi (Driver, car #8):
“I am obviously very pleased for the team to start the season with a one-two and such a strong performance. Every driver wants to win but there are two cars in the team and there can be only one winner; the #7 guys had a great race today. The whole team has performed amazingly well all week to put us in such a strong position compared to the opposition. This is just the first step and it will be a tough season but I am really happy to get the one-two here.”
Brendon Hartley (Driver, car #8):
“It’s an amazing result for the whole team and I am incredibly happy for everyone who has worked so hard for this. I’m also a bit disappointed for the #8 car to be second because it was such a close race, and we led for so much of it. We got a bit unlucky but congratulations to the #7 crew for the win. At the end there was only two seconds between the two cars after such a hard race which shows what a great job the team has done here.”
Ryo Hirakawa (Driver, car #8):
“This has been a perfect race for the team, a one-two finish at the beginning of a new season is the perfect start to a new era of Hypercar. It’s really cool to get this result here at Sebring but it is just the start of the season and there are six more races to go, including Le Mans which is the main target. We are in good shape, but our competitors will continue to improve so we need to keep pushing. It is fun to be part of this challenge and I am looking forward to the next race already.”
1000 Miles of Sebring - Result:
1st #7 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing 239 laps
2nd #8 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing +2.168secs
3rd #50 Ferrari AF Corse (Fuoco/Molina/Nielsen) +2 laps
4th #2 Cadillac Racing (Bamber/Lynn/Westbrook) +2 laps
5th #5 Porsche Penske (Cameron/Christensen/Makowiecki) +4 laps
6th #6 Porsche Penske (Estre/Lotterer/Vanthoor) +4 laps