Motorsport: Le Mans test of endurance for Toyota
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As the last marque standing with an LMP1-Hybrid programme in the FIA World Endurance Championship — following the departure of Audi and Porsche — Toyota will start as clear favourite to finally claim a 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend.
It’s a race that has the potential to be one-way traffic at the front, with the pair of Toyota TS050 Hybrids holding a performance edge over an eight-strong field of the new-for-2018 conventional LMP1 cars from privateer teams.
The 2018 Le Mans grid lined up at the official est day earlier this month. Picture/ Toyota Gazoo Racing.
But standing in the way of Toyota success are the challenges of the 24 Hours of Le Mans — its demands on reliability, strategy, potential for changing weather and the risk of negotiating slower traffic fighting their own class battles. They are pitfalls Toyota knows only too well, having been close to victory, only to be cruelly denied in the final minutes in 2016, or having its entire three-car effort sidelined or significantly delayed in 2017.
As a form guide, the June 3 Le Mans Test Day showed the Toyota TS050 was fastest, but only by a slim margin over the latest Rebellion LMP1 cars. Test Day gave Toyota headlines with Fernando Alonso clocking the fastest lap of 3m 19.066s. The Rebellion R13 of Mathias Beche clocked a strong 3m 19.680s lap that suggests conventional cars aren’t out of the fight.
Last year, Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi smashed the track record in qualifying with a 3m 14.791s pole lap that was 2.3 seconds clear of Neel Jani’s Porsche.
Toyota also won the first of the 2018 6-Hour FIA WEC races at Spa Francorchamps with the number 8 car of Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima leading home the number 7 car of Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose-Maria Lopez. The best of the non-hybrid cars finished two laps behind and was 1.4 seconds slower on fastest lap times.
A couple of rule changes should work in Toyota’s favour. The hybrid cars are permitted to run one lap longer between refuelling stops and will also take less time to refuel. For the first time in the modern era, pit crews may refuel cars and change tyres at the same time, which will make some pit stops quicker and put pressure on slicker driver changes.
Over the full race distance, pundits are estimating the one-lap stint length advantage and quicker refuel times should give the hybrid cars an advantage of about two to four laps.
Toyota's 2-18 driving squad.
But the main difference between 2017 and this year is a hybrid car is unlikely to be able to fight back from any delay as lengthy as the one that saw the winning Porsche of Timo Bernhard and Kiwis Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley fight back from a 65-minute pit stop to regain the lead from an LMP2 car about 90 minutes from the finish.
If the Toyotas are delayed and there’s a clean run for a Rebellion or one of the SMP Racing BR1 cars, then the race becomes a lot more compelling. The Rebellion R13 with a Gibson V8 engine is based on the chassis of the Oreca 07 LMP2 car and the Swiss team has strong driving rosters of Andre Lotterer, Jani and Bruno Senna while Thomas Laurent and Gustavo Menezes team up with Beche.
The other leading LMP1 challengers are the Russian SMP Racing BR1 cars with AER V6 turbo engines. Jenson Button teams with Russian stars Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin while the second car is crewed by Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin and the Russian duo of Egor Orudzhev and Matevos Isaakyan.
If the top prototype category becomes a little predictable, there are other places to look for competition within a 60-car Le Mans grid. In particular, the race is shaping up as a GT gunfight with six factory teams chasing GTE-Pro success.
Porsche’s departure from prototype racing has brought a renewed emphasis on GT racing. There are four works 911 RSR entries — the German marque bringing together its two-car squads from the FIA WEC and the WeatherTech IMSA Sport Car Championship in a four-car, 12-driver squad that includes Kiwi Earl Bamber.
Ford Chip Ganassi Racing is doing the same thing with its FIA WEC and IMSA squads for a four-car effort and also includes a Kiwi on the Ford GT driver squad with Scott Dixon set for his third Le Mans fresh from an IndyCar victory at Texas last weekend.
There are 17 cars in the GTE-Pro category. The AF Corse squad runs a trio of Ferrari 488s, and Corvette Racing makes its annual trek to Le Mans with its duo of yellow C7R racers. There are two all-new cars in GTE-Pro with BMW rejoining the fray with the M8 GTE while Aston Martin has the new turbocharged Vantage AMR.
Porsche and Ford set the pace at the official test and Aston Martin Racing has had to build a replacement car in a short turnaround to replace one badly damaged in a test session crash.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans starts at 1am Sunday (NZ time). The cars are on track for a four-hour practice session (Thursday 2am NZ time) and there are three qualifying sessions — each lasting two hours — starting at 8am Thursday, 5am Friday and 8am Friday (NZ time).