How Toyota has bounced back from its 2016 heartbreak

Following its 2016 heartbreak, Toyota has left no stone unturned in its quest to finally deliver that elusive Le Mans 24 Hours win. Filip Cleeren spoke to the key players involved in its 2017 victory bid.

How Toyota has bounced back from its 2016 heartbreak
Rob Leupen, Toyota Racing team director
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
Anthony Davidson, Toyota Gazoo Racing
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
Polesitters #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Stéphane Sarrazin
#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Stéphane Sarrazin, #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, #9 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Jose Maria Lopez, Yuji Kunimoto, Nicolas Lapierre

Fielding a trio of TS050 Hybrids, Toyota goes into the 2017 edition as the pre-race favourite after winning the opening WEC rounds in Silverstone and Spa and dominating qualifying for the 85th running of the endurance classic. 

Kamui Kobayashi's record lap in Thursday night's final qualifying session underlined the sheer pace of the Japanese marque's 2017 challenger, which is the result of the Cologne-based operation giving the car that came so close to victory last year a thorough overhaul.

"We have improved all components from last year,” team director Rob Leupen told Motorsport.com. “A new engine, improved systems, hybrid system with improved electric engines, and we changed the aerodynamics a fair bit.

"We have a car that’s been improved in every area. That should allow us to be successful here." 

While Toyota has clawed back most of the downforce lost by the stricter aerodynamic regulations introduced for this year, driver Anthony Davidson thinks the improved V6 turbo engine is providing the biggest gains compared to last year’s car.

Following a disastrous 2015 campaign, Toyota had to rush its switch from a normally aspirated V8 to a V6 turbo engine. During the off-season the Cologne based team finally managed to extract the full potential out of the power unit.

“The powertrain was good already last year but it was slightly underdeveloped being a brand-new concept," Davidson said. "This year you can definitely tell it’s in year two of its lifecycle.

"With the limited timeframe we had we had fast-tracked the evolution from the V8 to the V6. It was always in the pipeline but it wasn’t supposed to be rushed through so quickly until the disastrous 2015 season, which then fast-forwarded everything.

"That’s why last year’s engine wasn’t at the level it could have been and why this year's engine where they knew they could take last year’s engine and give it a bit more time and we’ve found a bit of speed from that.

"With the hit we took from the aerodynamic side, it’s pretty much status quo. We didn’t lose time from it but we certainly didn’t gain.”

After last year’s race, in which Davidson's leading #8 Toyota broke down with six minutes to go, Leupen is extra cautious about the team’s prospects in the 85th running of the event.

"Porsche definitely has the speed, but I’m hearing they also have strong reliability," he adds. "Our car is quite new, so maybe that’s our biggest problem. Last year it was a part we never took into account.

"What happened last year has had quite a big influence on how you celebrate your victories. It makes your put everything in perspective. The team was elated in Fuji, Silverstone and Spa, but for me those were pretty quiet victories.”

Davidson explained Toyota’s approach has remained the same as last year despite the last-minute disaster. 

“We approached it exactly the same”, the 38-year-old Briton said. "We were prepared as a team last year to come here.

"It was unfortunate what happened and you try and get those small details right but something else might happen this year. We might have a gearbox failure out of nowhere, which we haven't seen at winter testing. It’s just that type of thing, it happens here. 

"You can plan this race as well as you can and at the end of the day you need luck to win it. Le Mans just comes your way or it doesn’t." 

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