Toyota "can't afford single mistake" against privateers
Toyota LMP1 team director Rob Leupen believes the Japanese manufacturer "can't afford a single mistake" against its privateer opposition during this week's Le Mans 24 Hours.
After two years of Le Mans heartbreak, Toyota has focussed on improved reliability to finally get a much-coveted win at the FIA World Endurance Championship centrepiece.
With Porsche following Audi out the door of the LMP1 category at the end of 2017, Toyota is the sole remaining manufacturer in the top class, and last month it scored an emphatic 1-2 finish in the WEC season-opening Spa 6 Hours.
At Le Mans however, a variety of reliability issues and freak incidents have denied Toyota for two years in a row, meaning the Japanese marque is still chasing that elusive win at La Sarthe.
Last year the #8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid retired with an ailing electric motor, while its #7 sister car dropped out when a pitlane mishap caused a clutch failure.
In 2016 Kazuki Nakajima’s leading #7 car dramatically broke down with an turbo issue with just five minutes to go in the 24-hour marathon.
Despite several painful memories at Le Mans, Toyota is keen to set the record straight at its seventh attempt to win the endurance classic since the birth of its current WEC programme.
"I believe the atmosphere is even better than last year because we focussed more on reliability and less on performance,” Leupen told Motorsport.com.
"Our problem is that we’ve always come across certain things that we didn’t expect. This year we’ve worked even more intensively to prevent that.
"Quality control has been a major theme for us. We’ve been very thorough and concentrated with the mechanics to make sure everything is sorted out properly."
Jose Maria Lopez, who'll share the #7 car with Mike Conway and last year's polesitter Kamui Kobayashi, added: "Even if the race has been hard with us, we still come and enjoy it.
"We still come back strong and everything that has to be done has been done; testing, development, preparation. Now we just need to enjoy the race and do it. Let’s hope that this time Le Mans will allow us to win."
Despite being the only hybrid-powered team, Toyota is not underestimating the privateer opposition in the shape of ByKolles, Ginetta, the Dallara-built BR Engineering BR1 and Rebellion’s Oreca cars.
"The pressure is a bit different now there's no Audi or Porsche, but I think we need to be careful,” Leupen explained. "We’re not in a situation where we’re just going to cruise and win.
"We can't afford to make a single mistake. Last year we showed we were ahead and yet we still didn’t pull it off.
"Of course we have to be better prepared. We’ve been doing this for seven years. We should have everything sorted out."
For Le Mans, the FIA and WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l'Ouest have worked on a bespoke Equivalence of Technology formula to make sure the non-hybrid privateers are within half a second of Toyota per lap of the 13.6-km Circuit de la Sarthe.
At the official test Fernando Alonso’s #8 car was six tenths quicker than the fastest Rebellion R-13 of Mathias Beche. But with Toyota not running at its ultimate pace and the privateers still trying to get the most out of their brand-new cars, coming up with the right EoT formula is proving a challenge.
Although the rulemakers reserve the right to issue a new EoT in the run-up to the race, Conway believes so far the Automobile Club de l'Ouest and the FIA have got it more or less just right.
"Rebellion are really strong, right where we expected them to be,” said the Briton. "It is quite clear that they are closer at Le Mans than before at Spa. It's just the rules.”
"For a distance twice as long we only have two megajoules more hybrid energy at Le Mans than at Spa. Rebellion, on the other hand, can accelerate almost completely, almost regardless of fuel consumption.
"They are therefore very close, but that's good for everybody. That's how nice competition is created.”
Toyota doesn’t agree with suggestions that a win a Le Mans would be less meaningful without manufacturer competition.
"In the past four years three times we were the logical winner: 2014, 2016 and 2017,” said technical director Pascal Vasselon.
"In terms of performance, we have already been able to beat our opposition in Le Mans. What we did not beat is the 24 hours. Our challenge is still intact. It’s Toyota versus Le Mans."
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