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History at Le Mans

History at Le Mans

Botchi Santos

#7 Toyota GR10 finally a winner, rules first hypercar class race of 24 Hours of Le Mans

You don’t just show up at Le Mans with an open budget and expect to win. This was a very painful lesson Toyota more than any other manufacturer in the sport knows. The Japanese conglomerate has for many years and in different eras been trying to win the coveted trophy at the famed French Classic but success only came in recent years.

These thoughts were in my head as I left the TV on to watch the race for roughly 14 hours in total while doing my daily chores. Toyota had previously completed a hat-trick, winning Le Mans three in a row, from 2018, 2019 and 2020. It famously won with Fernando Alonso alongside Sebastian Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima in the #8 Toyota TSO50 LMP1 Hybrid race car in the first two of the three years, and car #8 once again won in 2020 with Buemi, Nakajima and Brendon Hartley, a former Porsche works driver from the rival 919 Hybrid race car team that had won Le Mans three times prior to Toyota’s dominance. 

Pundits are quick to downplay Toyota’s success as there were no other major manufacturers in LMP1, the top class at Le Mans. But in the past, hallowed names like Porsche and Audi also showed overwhelming dominance at Le Mans with no serious competition present. Finishing at Le Mans is already a serious achievement, and winning it requires equal parts fortune, hard work and good luck. 

The famed Circuit de la Sarthe in the north west province of Le Mans, is 8.5 miles or 13.67 kilometers for a single lap. The infamous Mulsanne straight is divided into three sections, broken up by two chicanes yet the top class cars still reach speeds in excess of 330km/h. In the 80’s, prior to the chicanes, the top cars were already exceeding 400km/h!
A typical lap for the top class cars would be in the 3:25-3:30 range for the modern hypercar class, which are bigger, slower (by roughly 10 seconds around Le Mans) and cheaper than its predecessor LMP1 cars, the top class today at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Most cars do between 11-13 laps before pitting in to refuel and replace the tires. By the end of the race, the hypercar class will have lapped 370 times around the circuit, covering 5,057.9 kilometers. That’s almost the entire season of Formula One. Le Mans is not for the faint of heart indeed. 

Since 2019, Toyota has always fielded two cars, #7 and #8. In 2017, Kamui Kobayashi set the fastest ever qualifying lap at Le Mans with a 3:14.927 in the TSO50 LMP1, a record which will probably remain unbeaten.

Unfortunately, Kobayashi and the rest of car #7 drivers Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez would perennially be bridesmaids to the winning #8 car. Would 2021 be the year that the #7 would finally shine?

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is traditionally held on the second weekend of June, but due to COVID19 and a variety of other  logistical and quarantine restrictions, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest together with the FIA moved the race to August 21-22, starting at 3 pm local time Saturday and ending at 3 pm the following Sunday. 

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. World Endurance Championship. Le Mans 24 Hours Race Le Mans Circuit, France 16th to 22nd August 2021 Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) Mike Conway (GBR) Jose Maria Lopez (ARG) celebrate their win.

Rain greeted the start of Le Mans this year, forcing a couple of formation laps even after the race started and cars were behind the safety car. Toyota enjoyed a 1-2 advantage at the start. But due to cold track temperatures and cold tires along with wet and greasy sections of the track, chaos ensued on the first competitive lap when one of the Glickenhaus Hybrid cars lost traction under braking and collided with the #8 Toyota GR10 Hypercar. sending both cars spinning and down the order. With almost 60 cars on the mixed grid, the Toyota #8 car had a long battle ahead. More accidents and outs followed in the first 45 minutes, and an Aston Martin Racing GTE-AM race car lost it and crashed into the barriers at a high speed section which disrupted the race again, bringing out the safety cars until the barriers were repaired even after rain had stopped and the track had dried out. This allowed the Toyota #8 car to close the gap and by the end of the first hour was back in the top 5.   

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Towards the evening, the Toyota GR10 #8 car reported a strong vibration inside the car, which could have potentially been caused by its contact with the Glickenhaus car at the start. Toyota’s car #7, which effectively led from start to finish also had a hair-raising moment when it spun out early Sunday morning with Kobayashi behind the wheel but recovered beautifully and maintained its lead. But by noon, it was learned by all that both Toyotas had a fuel pick-up problem which basically prevented them from using the entire amount of fuel inside their cars, necessitating more frequent pit stops, doing 8-9 laps and refueling instead of the usual 12-13 laps. Thankfully their margins were massive and had a healthy buffer towards the end. Car #8 also suddenly lost power and was forced to park on the side of the road as the driver basically re-booted the various electrical systems of the car, which thankfully brought it back to life and was able to go at full throttle. Yet on a variety of succeeding pit stops,  the drivers would re-boot the entire electrical systems which would take far longer than a regular pit stop. 

With 10 minutes left, both Toyotas pitted in for a refuel, and a final check of the systems and went out on a historic closing stage to finish 1-2, with Kobayashi and his crew finally winning the famed race with car #7. Bridesmaids no more, and history made as Toyota wins the first hypercar class at Le Mans, and the most successful Japanese manufacturer. In LMP2, WRT won their class and finished 6th overall, AF Corse Ferrari won GTE-PRO and 20th overall. Lastly, GTE-AM was also won by AF Corse Ferrari and finishing at 25th overall. Racing Team India Eurasia finished 16th in class and 28th overall, being an all-Filipino-crew aside from the three drivers.  

Toyota joins the likes of Porsche (20 outright wins), Audi (13 outright wins), Bentley (5 outright wins), Ferrari (8), Ford (5) and Alfa Romeo (4) for being multiple winners. Toyota has bested BMW (1), Mercedes-Benz (2) and Peugeot (3) for outright wins. 

The next two years will be exciting as more brands will once again be entering Le Mans’ hypercar class. Peugeot, Porsche, Audi, Ferrari and possibly Ford, Aston Martin and Bugatti could be part of the competition in the next few years.