Podium for Conway at Sebring
Podium for Conway at Sebring

Mike Conway made it five podium finishes from six races this past weekend as he helped TOYOTA GAZOO Racing to another 1-2 finish in the 2018/19 WEC Super Season at the 1000 Miles of Sebring.

On the back of a three-day test in February plus a WEC collective test the previous weekend, Mike and the team started the weekend with some comprehensive running already under their belt and kicked off the beginning of the event with two 90-minute practice sessions.

In front of an already-substantial crowd, the #7 TS050 HYBRID of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López set the fastest lap time of 1min 41.730secs of the day during second practice. The #7 TS050 completed 92 laps, 553 kilometres, in the first day of running to complete a successful start to the weekend for Mike and his Toyota team.

“It was okay today; we were adapting to the circuit conditions and getting the car dialled in during the night. It felt okay but there was a lot of traffic so I didn’t get any clear laps. Still, that’s all good learning for the race. It’s more wild here at night because the circuit is quite narrow and when cars drop a wheel off the track there is so much dust. It will look good on the onboard camera!”

Qualifying took place in the darkness of Thursday night, adding an additional challenge for the drivers, alongside the constant battle to find clean space on the 6.019km track that is notorious for heavy traffic due to the proximity of the walls and the unforgiving kerbs.

The night proved to be a frustrating one for the #7 car, which had topped two of the three practice sessions in the run-up to qualifying. Mike was first behind the wheel but could not match the #8 car’s pace on his flying laps, while José Maria Lopez faced traffic on his first lap and made a small error on his second before holding his nerve in the closing seconds to record a competitive time.

This meant the #7 team could only manage a best average time of 1:40.803,to secure second place in an all-Toyota front row for the 1000 Miles of Sebring.

“I found the car a little bit difficult in the night. It was hard to put a lap together so in theend I had two scrappy laps. We start second which isn’t bad for a long race tomorrow. We’ve got to execute our race well and make the right calls on strategy. Hopefully we can come home with a good result.”

The team’s first race at Sebring began in bright sunshine and with an air temperature of 28°C as José started the race for the #7 and put the pressure of the sister #8 car through the beginning phase of the race in Sebring.

The battle continued on continued until a brief rain shower just before the two-hour mark. Soon after that, the #17 SMP car crashed heavily, causing a full course yellow and then a safety car to repair barrier damage. That closed the field, bringing Kamui, now behind the wheel of the #7, closer to Fernando Alonso in the #8 and the battle resumed after 15 minutes.

As the adverse weather conditions continued, heavy rain in the local area missed the track and the TS050 HYBRIDs kept up a close fight as darkness fell. At half distance, Mike was now behind the wheel of the #7 car and was flying out on track and pulling in Kazuki Nakajima in the #8.

With Mike managing to reduce the gap to the #8 to just a few seconds, the titanic duel between the two TOYOTAs was brought to an early end after four-and-a-half hours when José, at the wheel of the #7, suffered a minor contact with the #90 Aston Martin. That required a change of engine cover and rear bodywork, which cost four minutes in the pits, putting the car a lap down.

The #7 crew showed strong spirit to come back from the disappointment of losing a lap and set competitive times to comfortably extend their advantage over third place.

The final three hours of the race looked to be passing without major incident as the TS050 HYBRIDs once again demonstrated remarkable reliability on a circuit famed for being tough on cars and drivers. However, the Florida weather intervened and rain began to fall around half an hour from the end.

With the chequered flag approaching, the intensity of the rain increased and both cars pitted with 20 minutes remaining to change to wet Michelin tyres. But as conditions worsened, both cars returned to pit lane to switch to extreme wet tyres with the target of simply avoiding any incident and reaching the flag safely.

That became slightly easier when a safety car was called with only 12 minutes remaining due to an accident for an LMP2 car. With heavy rain continuing, even driving behind the safety car was challenging but Mike stayed calm in the #7 and brought it home in second place.

“Another one-two is a good result for everybody on the team. We pushed hard all the way through and it was a nice fight in the first half of the race. We all had some close moments out there; you get so close to the GT cars. At the end the conditions were really tricky; it was like driving on ice, particularly on the concrete sections. It’s a pity that we lost out today but we still have Spa and Le Mans coming up so we will keep pushing.”