It took Toyota 20 attempts to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But since the company first got its hands on the trophy in 2018, it has not let up, winning the last four races by a comfortable margin of at least four laps.
This year, Toyota will take on Renault-owned French sports car brand Alpine and American boutique sports car company Glickenhaus in the Le Mans Hypercar class in a bid for overall victory starting Saturday. Neither has previously won Le Mans, making the challenge of stopping Toyota difficult.
“Toyota is so strong,” said Philippe Sinault, Alpine Team Principal. “We know it’s David versus Goliath.”
But the signs heading to Le Mans suggest Toyota could face tougher competition this year. In March, Alpine won the opening race of the Endurance World Championship at Sebring in Florida before Glickenhaus secured pole position at Spa, Belgium. Despite Toyota winning the Spa race, the team felt their lead had narrowed since Le Mans last year.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re falling behind,” said Mike Conway, one of the drivers who won Le Mans for Toyota last year. “It was more difficult, that’s for sure. But I think that’s what we want to see, all much closer.
“As you’ve seen over the past few years, Alpine has been pretty bulletproof in terms of reliability. Glackenhaus was pretty good. So we cut out our work.”
Rob Leupen, Toyota’s team director, said the “smallest mistake” would prove costly this year and that no team could afford to waste time repairing their cars during the race.
“The cars are near,” he said. “Nobody has a real excess of performance compared to the others, so reliability and teamwork are key and I think we’re experienced here to take on that challenge.”
To encourage close competition between the leading cars in the hypercar class, Le Mans organizers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, use a system called Balance of Performance, known as BOP, to prevent teams from hitting a big one have advantage. The BOP can adjust the horsepower or change the speed at which hybrid propulsion can be used. Last year that was 75 mph for Toyota but rose to 120 mph at the start of the season, reducing its advantage over the non-hybrid cars from Alpine and Glickenhaus.
“You don’t unleash the full potential of every car,” said Leupen. “They keep it within the framework of the Balance of Performance to give everyone an equal opportunity.”
Jim Glickenhaus, owner of his eponymous team, found the Balance of Performance rules at Le Mans last year “completely unfair” and denied his cars a chance to beat Toyota.
“I said if I don’t have a fair BOP I won’t come back and to be fair to them they’re really working to get a fair BOP,” said Glickenhaus, pointing out the 0.3 second gap , which his team covers. Toyota and Alpine qualifying at Spa.
“We feel very strong about Le Mans this year and if they keep optimizing the BOP I think we could win Le Mans. Am I saying we will? No of course not. But we could.”
Luis Felipe Derani of Brazil said it was “amazing how much the Glickenhaus team has improved and pushed forward” since finishing fourth with the team at Le Mans last year.
“You could see at Spa that we were right there, apart from at the very end when we made a mistake in strategy that took away our chance to fight with Toyota,” said Derani. “It’s a very nice challenge to see what such a small group of people can achieve when they work really, really hard against a giant like Toyota.”
Glickenhaus is focused on building a cheaper non-hybrid car that still has “equal odds and is less complex.” Glickenhaus said he was heartened at the chance to even get into the fight for victory at Le Mans against a global manufacturer.
“The idea that you even say Glickenhaus and Toyota in the same sentence is a joke,” he said. “We’re second in the WEC drivers’ standings ahead of Toyota. Think about it.”
Alpine are counting on home support as they attempt to become the first French team to win Le Mans since Peugeot 2009. Alpine riders André Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxivière lead the championship. Sinault said they remained underdogs against Toyota but confident there was “something to play for” at Le Mans.
“It will be fantastic to win at Le Mans with Alpine, a French brand with a French spirit,” said Sinault. “But we try to stay out of that thinking. We know we have a lot of pressure.”
Leupen was reluctant to agree to the David versus Goliath comparison with Toyota’s competitors. “You have to have every respect for them and not belittle them,” he said. “We have to be careful, because with Alpine and Glickenhaus we have two very strong competitors looking at us.”
If they manage to win the race, Toyota would be only the fourth manufacturer, after Porsche, Ferrari and Audi, to win Le Mans at least five times in a row. Leupen said it was the “biggest reward” for the team. “I’m confident about the drivers,” he said. “With the whole team working together, I think we should be in a very good position to perform well.”
Regardless of the competition, the challenge of running a car reliably for 24 hours makes Le Mans one of the toughest races in motorsport. Toyota almost had to retire from both cars in last year’s race due to a fuel pressure issue, while in 2016 it lost the race to Porsche when it was comfortably leading after its car suffered a sudden loss of power on the final lap.
“The end result does not only depend on pure performance, especially not at Le Mans,” said Pierre Fillon, President of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. “It’s a long, challenging race for drivers and machines. Every team knows that it is impossible to predict the outcome.
“There are surprises in all classes every year, even in the last round. Alpine and Glickenhaus have worked particularly hard over the past few months and I am confident they will put on a great show.”
An added incentive for drivers and teams will be the return of full grandstands after two years of racing with Covid-19 restrictions in place. The race has returned to its usual June dates after running in September 2020 and August 2021.
Conway said it felt “strange” to be on the podium to lift the trophy last year without the “sea of people” that usually poured onto the track after the checkered flag to celebrate the winners. “It definitely didn’t feel like that,” he said. “We have missed the fans in recent years. It should be a full house and I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
Fillon said organizers had “waited for this moment for far too long” to welcome back a capacity of 250,000 spectators after being capped at 50,000 last year.
“Of course I’m really happy that the grandstands are full again and that we can enjoy the special atmosphere of the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” said Fillon. “This event would not be the same without the tens of thousands of fans at the circuit and we have many activities planned to celebrate their return.
“Endurance racing is an accessible sport that gets the hordes of fans up close and personal and we need to keep that alive.”
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