|Toyota is on the brink of an historic first victory at Le Mans with two hybrid race cars competing in the 86th edition of the classic French endurance race next weekend. The Toyota GAZOO Racing team is the race favourite and expects to fight for victory after 25,000km of pre-season testing designed to enhance the performance and reliability of the TS050 Hybrid cars.
Toyota has proved its speed at Le Mans in recent years, having missed out on victory due to a technical problem in the last minutes of the 2016 race and setting a record-breaking fastest lap to earn pole position last year. The bid to become only the second Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hour of Le Mans has been made tougher by regulation changes that severely restrict the fuel and energy use in the two Toyota race cars compared with their non-hybrid rivals.
The #7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid will be shared by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López while Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima return in the #8 alongside Le Mans rookie Fernando Alonso. Earlier this week, Alonso topped the times at the official Le Mans test day on his first experience of the track with teammate Kamui Kobayashi in third place.
The two-time Formula 1 world champion said the team had worked very hard to be in a strong position to win the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic on Toyota’s 20th attempt.
“It is exciting to prepare for my first Le Mans 24 Hours and experience this amazing event at this iconic circuit; it feels special,” he said. “It’s going to be an experience, not only the race but the complete week with the preparation, the atmosphere and the fans; that’s the magic of Le Mans.” López, a three-time world touring car champion, said all the work of the past 12 months – the tests, effort and sacrifices – comes down to the race week where the team needs to perform at its best.
“There are some high-profile drivers and a lot of prototype cars so it’s a great grid; I am expecting one of the most exciting races for a while,” he said. Improvements to Toyota’s efficient hybrid electric powertrain for motorsport means the TS050 cars take on the challenge of Le Mans using around 35% less fuel than in 2012, when the company’s first hybrid LMP1 car competed at La Sarthe.
In the first race of the 2018-19 season at Spa, Belgium, Toyota won by two laps, helped by significantly quicker pit stops than its competitors.
The Le Mans week represents the true spirit and challenge of endurance racing, featuring a total of almost 35 hours of driving, starting on Wednesday with a four-hour practice session followed by two hours of qualifying. Two more 120-minute qualifying sessions are held on Thursday with the starting grid decided by the fastest lap from any of the qualifying sessions. A driver’s parade on Friday is followed by the race which starts at 3 pm (Le Mans time) on Saturday.