In about an hour, the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans will begin. Le Mans is one of the most famous events in motorsport, its fame rivaled only by the likes of the Monaco, Indianapolis, and Daytona. It is the jewel in the crown of the FIA World Endurance Championship — indeed, it overshadows the rest of the calendar to such an extent that most teams and drivers would likely take a victory at Le Mans over the actual WEC trophy itself.
Many different manufacturers have taken part in the race over its long history, but few have been as truly unlucky as Toyota. In 1999, the #3 Toyota TS020 GT-One driven by Ukyo Katayama was successfully chasing down the lead #15 BMW of Pierluigi Martini close to the end of the race when it suffered a tyre blowout, effectively ending its challenge for the overall victory. The #3 car ended up getting second. In 2014, the #7 Toyota TS040 Hybrid, driven by Nakajima Kazuki, was in the lead during the night when its race was ended when an FIA-mandated sensor overheated, damaging other crucial electronics in the car.
Toyota’s most infamous Le Mans heartbreak occurred last year, however. With one lap to go, Nakajima Kazuki in the #5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid had a one-lap gap over the second-place #2 Porsche. Victory was almost assured — until Nakajima’s TS050 slowed down dramatically due to a freak failure in the electrical systems of the vehicle. Porsche won the race. The #5 Toyota did not finish.
Toyota, to their credit, seems truly committed to winning the 24 Hours. Since their return to the sport in 2012 they have been a bit of an underdog, with a lower budget than their rivals Audi and Porsche — two Volkswagen Group manufacturers. Audi left the sport following the 2016 season, leaving Porsche and Toyota as the only two manufacturers left in the LMP1 category (WEC events feature four categories of cars — LMP1, LMP2, GTE-pro, and GTE-am — racing simultaneously). It is essentially guaranteed that either a Porsche or a Toyota will win both the LMP1 category and the overall victory, and this year Toyota seems keen to end their spell of bad luck. For the first time since their return in 2012, Toyota will run three cars at Le Mans instead of two, giving then a numerical edge over Porsche. Both teams are running improved versions of their previous vehicles, the 919 and the TS050. The driver lineups of the two teams are as follows:
#1 Porsche 919: Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy
#2 Porsche 919: Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber, Brendon Hartley
#7 Toyota TS050: Mike Conway, Kobayashi Kamui, Stephane Sarrazin
#8 Toyota TS050: Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, Nakajima Kazuki
#9 Toyota TS050: Nicolas Lapierre, Kunimoto Yuji, Jose Maria Lopez
The Toyota TS050 Hybrid looked faster than the Porsche 919 Hybrid in testing, and that advantage was confirmed in qualifying, with the #7 and #8 Toyotas coming first and second respectively. The third TS050, the #9 car, qualified in fifth, with the #1 and #2 Porsche slotting in at third and fourth. Still, lifting the curse will not be easy. Qualifying position matters far less in Le Mans than at a Formula One grand prix, mainly due to the sheer length of the race. Strategy, long-distance pace, reliability, and luck are far more important. The #9 Toyota has the least experience of the three, meaning that the battle for the overall victory will likely be between the two Porsches and the #7 and #8 TS050s. Porsche is the most succesful team in Le Mans history, and the dominant team at the 24 Hours in recent years. Only a fool would count the 919s out of the race.
Le Mans is a fascinating race, and one that is interesting to watch every year. As a Toyota fan, watching the #5 car pull to the side of the track right near the end of the race in 2016 was utterly heartbreaking. My mind says that Porsche’s experience will grant them another victory, but in my heart I will certainly be rooting for Toyota. Here’s hoping that 2017 will be a better Le Mans for them than the last.