Lopez, Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Conway won the opening round of the 2023 WEC season in the #7 Toyota GR010 Hybrid, leading the sister #8 car crewed by Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa by just over two seconds.

The #7 Toyota moved to the front around the halfway point of the race when Kobayashi got ahead of the sister #8 car that had led the order since Ferrari went off-strategy in the first hour.

No other car in the 11-car Hypercar class finished anywhere near the dominant Toyotas, with the third-placed Ferrari 499P of Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina and Nicklas Nielsen ending up two laps down after serving two separate penalties for not respecting correct restart procedures.

The significance of Toyota's result wasn’t lost on Lopez, who hailed the Japanese marque for maintaining its advantage in the burgeoning Hypercar class at the start of sportscar racing’s new golden era.

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“First congratulations to everyone here and the team as well, my team-mates did an amazing job,” said Lopez, whose crash in last year’s Sebring race handed an unlikely win to Alpine.

“Pretty difficult for myself, I haven’t been good for these two guys [Kobayashi and Conway] in the last few races here. But I didn’t stop believing. 

“We had the car [to win]. It wasn’t easy in the first laps to get into the rhythm, to get the confidence back, but the car was working well. We had a good car and it’s a great competition with car #8 and Ferrari. 

“The game has changed, it’s much nicer. We are proud to be part of this modern era of endurance racing. 

#50 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P: Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina, Nicklas Nielsen

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

“Proud of the team, we did a perfect race, mechanics and engineers, we did good pitstops, the cars didn’t have any problems, and that gave us a good gap. 

“This 1-2 is very important for us, the team, it gives us good points. Long season ahead, but it’s good to start like this.”

Toyota faced little competition from major manufacturers in the last few years of the WEC, but the introduction of LMH and LMDh regulations has brought back much needed life to the top category, with this year’s Hypercar grid comprising factory entries from Ferrari, Porsche, Cadillac and Peugeot - plus additional cars from smaller rivals Glickenhaus and Vanwall.

Kobayashi, who combines driving duties with a team principal role at Toyota, feels that increased competition has injected life into the WEC and is confident that the series will grow even further in stature next year, when BMW, Lamborghini and Alpine join the top class.

“First of all, when I was on the starting grid, I felt 'wow', definitely more than last year, it’s clear,” said Kobayashi.

“With the atmosphere, people get more excited, and when you see Ferrari running in the top category, it’s a completely different world. 

“I'm definitely looking forward to the 100th anniversary of Le Mans, this will be really huge. I felt it already before the race, and I think this momentum will increase in the future. 

“I’m really happy for this attention on the WEC generally, some manufacturers have come for 2023 but in 2024 even more manufacturers are coming. We definitively have a brilliant future ahead.

“But we are still fighting and we are still competitive as Toyota Gazoo Racing, that’s an achievement by [the people in] Japan. I think all the Toyota Gazoo Racing family made a big support for us. That’s made a great job.” 

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Hartley admitted that he was disappointed to lose victory in the eight-hour Sebring race, but felt the two-second finish margin between the two cars showed just how closely matched the Toyotas were in the opening round of the season.

“It’s an amazing result for the whole team and I am incredibly happy for everyone who has worked so hard for this,” said the Kiwi.

“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.”

2023-03-18T12:51:03Z dg43tfdfdgfd