Toyota is looking over his shoulder at Le Mans

It took Toyota 20 attempts to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But since taking the trophy for the first time in 2018, the company has refused to give up, winning the last four races with at least four laps on the comfortable side.

This year, Toyota will take on Renault, the French sports car brand Alpine, and the US sports car company Glickenhaus at the Le Mans Hypercar level, fighting for an overall victory starting on Saturday. Neither has won before winning Le Mans, making it difficult for Toyota to stop.

“Toyotas are very powerful,” said Philippe Sinault, Alpine’s top team. “We know Goliath is against David.”

But signs from Le Mans suggest that Toyota may face tougher competition this year. In March, Alpine won the opening race of the World Endurance Championships in Sebringen, Florida, before Glickenhaus won the Span pole position in Belgium. Although Toyota won the Spa race, the team left Le Mans last year feeling that their advantage had diminished.

“Sometimes we feel like we’re in the back,” said Mike Conway, one of the drivers who won Le Mans for Toyota last year. “It simply came to our notice then. But I think that’s what we want to see, everything much closer.

“As you’ve seen over the last couple of years, Alpine has been pretty bulletproof in terms of reliability. The Glickenhaus has been pretty good. So we have our work cut short. ”

Rob Leupen, Toyota’s team director, said the “slightest mistake” will be costly this year and that a team can’t afford to waste time repairing cars during the race.

“The cars are close by,” he said. “No one is really over-performing compared to others, so reliability and team operations are key, and I think we have the experience here to take on that challenge.”

To promote close competition between major Hypercar-class cars, the organizers of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, use a system called Balance of Performance, called BOP, to prevent teams from having a big advantage. The BOP can adjust the horsepower output or revise the speed at which the hybrid power can be used. For Toyota last year, it was 75 mph, but rose to 120 mph at the start of the season, reducing its advantage over Alpine and Glickenhaus hybrid cars.

“You don’t unleash the full potential of every car,” Leupen said. “You keep it in the front row of the Balance of Performance to give everyone equal opportunities.”

Jim Glickenhaus, the owner of the team of the same name, said last year that Le Mans’ Balance of Performance rules were “completely unfair” and denied his cars a chance to win a Toyota.

“I said I wouldn’t go back if I didn’t have a fair BOP, and straight with them, they’re really working to get a fair BOP,” said Glickenhaus, who noted the 0.3-second interval that covers his team. To classify Toyota and Alpine Span.

“We feel very strong with Le Mans this year, and if they continue to shape the BOP, I think we could win at 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 progressed” with the team finishing fourth at Le Mans last year.

“You saw in the spa that we were there with them, outside of the end when we made a strategy mistake, which deprived us of the chance to fight Toyota,” Derani said. “It’s a really nice challenge to have, when you see what such a small team can achieve when they work so hard against a giant like Toyota.”

Glickenhaus is focusing on building a cheaper, hybrid car that has a “unique and less complex chance to win”. Glickenhaus said he was delighted with the chances of getting into the fight to win Le Mans against a world-class manufacturer.

“The idea that you say Glickenhaus and Toyota in the same sentence is a joke,” he said. “We are second in the WEC drivers’ championship ahead of Toyota. Think about it. ”

Alpine is counting on its home support, as it is trying to be the first French team to win Le Mans since Peugeot in 2009. The tournament is led by Alpine drivers André Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxivière. Sinault said they were still away against Toyota, but he felt confident there was “something to play for” at Le Mans.

“It will be wonderful to win at Le Mans with Alpine, a French brand with a French spirit,” Sinault said. “But we try to stay out of this thinking. We know we’re under a lot of pressure. “

Leupen didn’t want David vs. Compare Goliath to Toyota’s rivals. “You have to have full respect for them, and you shouldn’t underestimate them,” he said. “We have to be careful, because Alpine and Glickenhaus are very strong competitors looking at us.”

If he wins the race, he will be the fourth manufacturer to win Le Mans at least five times in a row after Toyota Porsche, Ferrari and Audi. Leupen said it will be “the biggest prize” for the team. “With the drivers, I’m sure,” he said. “With the whole team working together, I think we should be in a very good position to show good performance.”

The challenge of riding the car reliably for 24 hours makes Le Mans one of the toughest motor sports races, no matter what the competition. Toyota had to withdraw almost two cars in last year’s race due to a fuel pressure issue, and in 2016 it lost the race against Porsche while driving comfortably as its car suddenly lost power on the last lap.

“The end result is not just about pure performance, especially at Le Mans,” said Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. “It’s a long and difficult race for drivers and machines. Every team knows that it is impossible to predict the outcome.

“There are surprises every year, in every class, even on the last lap. Alpine and Glickenhaus have been working hard for the last few months, and I’m confident they’ll put on a great show. “

An additional incentive for drivers and teams will be in the back of the packed grandstand after two years of racing with Covid-19 restrictions. The race has returned to normal June dates, after being held in September 2020 and August 2021.

Conway said being on the podium last year found it “strange” to lift the trophy after the checkered flag to celebrate the winners without the “sea of ​​people” that normally invaded the track. “It certainly didn’t feel the same way,” he said. “We’ve been missing fans for the last two years. It should be full of houses, and I’m looking forward to seeing that. ‘

According to Fillon, organizers have been “waiting too long” for this moment to return to a capacity of 250,000 people, after being limited to 50,000 last year.

“Obviously, I’m glad we’ll have the grandstands full again and we’ll be able to enjoy that special 24-hour atmosphere at Le Mans,” Fillon said. “This event is not the same without the thousands of fans at the racetrack, and we have organized many activities to celebrate their return.

“Endurance racing is a close sport where crowds of fans can get close, and that’s something we should try to keep alive.”

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