Toyota in tune for Le Mans 24 Hours
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Two early season wins and the tactical advantage of a third car have positioned Toyota Gazoo Racing as narrow favourites for the 24 Hours of Le Mans next month.
Back-to-back wins for the number 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid crewed by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima has been the early season storyline in the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship.
The Toyota trio followed up its season-opening 6 Hours of Silverstone victory in April with a narrow win over teammates Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi in the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps raced on Saturday. Conway and Kobayashi raced as a pairing as injury prevented Jose-Maria Lopez from competing last weekend.
It was Toyota's first 1-2 result in WEC competition since the Shanghai round of the 2014 Championship. Toyota now leads the manufacturers' championship by 8.5 points from Porsche.
The number 7 Toyota crew holds a lead of 17 points in the Drivers' Championship from the number 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of New Zealanders Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber with German team-mate Timo Bernhard.
At Le Mans, Toyota will be seeking redemption for its defeat last year when the leading car of Buemi, Davidson and Nakajima faltered on the penultimate lap and the Porsche of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb raced through to victory.
The winning start to the season and Toyota's decision to field a third car for Stephane Sarrazin, Yuji Kunimoto and Nicolas Lapierre positions the Japanese marque as the Le Mans favourites. The third trio gained experience with a Spa-Francorchamps outing.
But the form guide isn't as clear as the race results suggest because the Porsche team has opted to delay the debut of its high downforce bodywork until races later in the season and has raced its Le Mans-spec low drag package at the early season races.
At Spa, the number 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy qualified on pole position and there was close competition between Toyota and Porsche for much of the race.
The number 7 Toyota held the upper hand but two full-course yellow flag periods proved to be badly timed for the leading Toyota. It had made pit stops just before the cautions, while the number 8 team lost less time by stopping while the race was being controlled by an 80km/h speed limit.
Porsche's challenge was dented when Hartley made contact with an LMP2 class Signatech Alpine and needed new front-end bodywork. In the last segment of the race, Buemi initially held a half-minute lead but Kobayashi closed the gap to just 1.9secs at the finish with the Porsche of Hartley, Bamber and Bernhard 35.2secs behind the race winner.
With only five hybrid prototypes and the sole LMP1 privateer entry of ByKolles Racing there is the possibility of an LMP2 car claiming a podium finish at Le Mans.
The secondary prototype category numbers 25 cars for Le Mans and features new-gen cars from Oreca, Riley Technologies, Ligier and Dallara for 2017.
At Spa-Francorchamps the new LMP2 cars proved over 3secs per lap faster than the 2016 cars. On the longer Le Mans circuit that could translate to 5-6secs per lap.