Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director Pascal Vasselon is anticipating a “very strong challenge” from SMP Racing for pole position in qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Toyota is chasing a second straight Le Mans victory this weekend, and is the overwhelming favourite to dominate the race again thanks to its stint advantages and outright pace edge thanks to its hybrid car compared to the non-hybrid privateer cars in the LMP1 class.

The leading non-hybrid LMP1 car finished almost two seconds off Toyota’s best lap time during the Le Mans test day earlier this month, with SMP Racing’s #11 BR Engineering BR1 AER car ending a further half a second back.

However, Stoffel Vandoorne set a record maximum speed of 350.1 km/h in the #11 SMP entry, leading to suggestions such pace could give the team a chance to at least challenge Toyota in qualifying.

Asked if he felt the qualifying pace from SMP Racing could be threatening to Toyota, Vasselon said it "definitely" was.

“We consider that we will have a very strong challenge for the pole position, and even on race pace," he said.

“It has not been visible during the test day, but you’ll have to ask them why. We expect a strong challenge.

“They have massive top speed so it will be tough. It could lead [at the start].”

Toyota took pole by more than four seconds over the leading non-hybrid last year, but Vasselon said the team would not sacrifice anything for the race just to top qualifying. 

“We will go for pole position, but really within reason. We will limit the number of attacks and not change the setup of the car,” Vasselon explained.

“We will do some qualifying attacks as part of our race preparations so nothing special. We will try to be on pole but we are not focusing on pole.

“We are about providing fair conditions to both cars. The fastest one wins in the end, so the risk will be under control.”

Fernando Alonso said he was unsure how the privateer runners would compare to Toyota in the race, but added he expects them to draw closer considering its rule breaks since last year.

“I think we don’t know exactly where the competitors are,” Alonso said.

“Looking at last year, they should be close, because they’ve been one second, two seconds slower last year, and with the changes compared to last year for this year, the EoT [Equivalance of Technology], the weight, the fuel flow etc., the numbers should say they should be very close this year.

“But in the test day, they were not very close. At the moment, I think we don’t know. We try to do our race not looking at the competitors.

“If we find out they are too quick, we’ll see how we manage. But at the moment, we don’t think so.”

Regardless of how the pace in the race compares, Toyota will once again be able to complete one extra lap per stint than the other LMP1 privateers as a result of fuel capacities set in the EoT regulations.

Additional reporting by Haydn Cobb.