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Opinion
Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

Could 'unfair politics' at Le Mans benefit Toyota in the long run?

OPINION: Toyota suffered a painful defeat to Ferrari at Le Mans, as a controversial Balance of Performance change contributed to the end of its five-year winning streak at La Sarthe. But wresting endurance racing's biggest prize back in 2024 could give it more positive PR than would have ever resulted from winning the centenary edition.

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa

One minute and 22 seconds. That was all that separated Toyota from a sixth consecutive victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours. And what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a historically slim margin that is in the context of the French enduro that was celebrating its centenary running.

Since World War II, there have only been 10 occasions on which the two leading cars have even finished on the same lap, and 1m22s puts the 2023 race fourth on the list of closest conclusions with an officially-timed margin of victory behind the 2011, 2019 and 2004 contests.

It would be facile to suggest it was Ryo Hirakawa’s half-spin aboard the #8 Toyota GR010 HYBRID at Arnage with two hours to go that made the difference. Yes, the time lost (around a minute on-track and another two in the pits) obviously equates to much more than the final winning margin. But Hirakawa had been told to go for it, because pushing to the limit was the only way he was going to catch Antonio Giovinazzi in the leading #51 Ferrari 499P.

Hirakawa had been around 16s adrift at the time of his off, less than the 30s or so the Ferrari would lose in the final hour performing a power cycle at its pitstop. Hindsight is 20/20 and again, it would be too easy to say Hirakawa should have taken it a little easier. It was heartening to see his Toyota colleagues, especially Brendon Hartley, the man who had done so much to put the pressure on Ferrari, coming out in his defence post-race.

Indeed, considering everything that was thrown Toyota’s way in the run-up to Le Mans, with the organisers seemingly desperate to avoid another rout by the Japanese manufacturer after its dominant start to the World Endurance Championship season, the boys and girls at the squad’s Cologne and Higashi-Fuji bases should be proud of their efforts. And the fact that Toyota came so close to overcoming the additional hurdles put in its way by the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest will have no doubt earned the marque plenty of new admirers after several years of having things all its own way.

Such sentiments were echoed by Toyota driver/team principal Kamui Kobayashi, who was part of the #7 crew that was eliminated in a somewhat bizarre multi-car incident at Tertre Rouge triggered by a slow zone around the eight-hour mark.

Toyota's bid was further dented by the #7's bizarre multi-car incident

Toyota's bid was further dented by the #7's bizarre multi-car incident

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

Kobayashi and Hirakawa both appeared in what has become a traditional press conference for Japanese media held in the run-up to last weekend’s Sugo Super Formula round, which in recent years has fallen the week after Le Mans. And there, Kobayashi made it clear just how painful defeat had been for Toyota in the ‘race of the century’.

“We weren’t the fastest car,” said Kobayashi. “The whole team worked as a unit to see how far we could go with our strength as a team [as opposed to pure speed], and we ended up a close second. Because we [car #7] retired early, the #8 car was under even more pressure.

“We were so close, which makes it even more frustrating. If luck had been on our side, we could have won. I’m proud we were able to get that far.”

There can be little doubt that the controversial Balance of Performance changes imposed in the run-up to the official Test Day made the difference between victory and defeat for Toyota, which was dealt a weight increase of 37kg versus 24kg for Ferrari. That was a change that Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon estimated post-race to be worth 2m30s.

Even with what seems like unfair politics, we will fight with everything we have. I hope that the fans will enjoy seeing our team fight head-on

Akio Toyoda

Kobayashi was also keen to highlight that Ferrari had already shown itself to be almost capable of going toe-to-toe with Toyota on sheer pace alone in the previous WEC race at Spa.

“We knew at Spa the Ferrari was fast, including their race pace, and then we were still given an additional 13kg [relative to Ferrari],” said Kobayashi. “That is worth around 0.4s a lap, so we had to give it absolutely everything to stand a chance.

“What we also realised this time is that, with the additional weight, because there were no tyre warmers [for the opening rounds of the WEC] and the tyres are therefore softer than in previous years, the damage was even worse than we had simulated.”

Kobayashi has made it clear just how painful defeat had been for Toyota in the ‘race of the century’

Kobayashi has made it clear just how painful defeat had been for Toyota in the ‘race of the century’

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The news of the BoP change must have been particularly galling for Toyota’s top brass, who just days earlier had rolled out the red carpet for ACO president Pierre Fillon at the Fuji 24 Hours. Fillon was there to announce that the internal combustion hydrogen technology pioneered by Toyota in Japan would be eligible at Le Mans starting in 2026.

New Toyota president Koji Sato all but confirmed that there were plans afoot for the marque to produce a hydrogen car of its own, and sure enough, at Le Mans the covers came off the show car that symbolises Toyota’s ambitions to eventually conquer Le Mans with H2 power. Chairman Akio Toyoda also demoed the hydrogen-powered Corolla Sport that he had been racing at Fuji just two weeks prior around the famous Circuit de la Sarthe.

Prior to the race, after Ferrari scored a lockout of the front row in Hyperpole, Toyoda gave an interview (in Japanese) to his company’s internal Toyota Times magazine, and it was clear just how unimpressed he had been by the BoP change.

“I was thinking, ‘are you really willing to go that far just to let another team win?’” he said. “All of us in the team think that way, and I think there are possibly many fans who feel the same way.

“What we are doing is a ‘sport in which athletes do battle’. This is the ‘sport’ in ‘motorsport’. What I want to say is, it is not ‘motor-politics’ that simply exposes the sheer stubbornness of each manufacturer! But watching qualifying, I thought, ‘We’ve lost to politics'.

“Anyway, even with what seems like unfair politics, we will fight with everything we have. I hope that the fans will enjoy seeing our team fight head-on. I don’t want a closed, political battle that nobody sees. I want to fight in the open, where everyone can see us.”

Toyoda’s official post-race comment in Toyota’s press release was somewhat more restrained, but the overall theme remained the same.

“‘Off-field battles’ got in the way of the fight between athletes,” he said. “This is truly regrettable and disappointing.”

Kobayashi believes Toyota can learn lessons when it comes to future political gamesmanship

Kobayashi believes Toyota can learn lessons when it comes to future political gamesmanship

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

But Kobayashi feels that the controversial BoP change, even if it almost certainly cost Toyota the race, might have made the manufacturer more savvy when it comes to negotiating future changes - as it will have to now that political gamesmanship is apparently back in vogue.

“I wasn’t sure how far we should fight this rule change,” said Kobayashi. “But instead of just meekly accepting it, we persistently fought it until the start of the race. I think this [mindset] also fed into the team. The bonds of strength within the team have strengthened.

“Europe and Japan have different cultures. In Europe, the mindset is to fight for and negotiate everything. We are a Japanese team but, as we were fighting in Europe, we did not give up on questioning the legitimacy [of the rule change]. I think this has had a good effect on the team.”

In Europe, the mindset is to fight for and negotiate everything. We are a Japanese team but, as we were fighting in Europe, we did not give up on questioning the legitimacy [of the rule change]. I think this has had a good effect on the team

Kamui Kobayashi

Pre-race, Vasselon was asked about the length of Toyota’s current commitment to Le Mans and the WEC. He couldn’t say anything more than that the programme has to be signed off on a yearly basis, with no more longer-term guarantees than that.

But, if we assume Toyota will be back at La Sarthe next year for vengeance, then it would be fair to say it will do so with many more fans rooting for it than it had two weeks prior to this year’s running, when it was still considered the heavy favourite against the newcomers.

While the run of five straight Le Mans wins might have been broken, there’s an argument to say that wresting the title back in 2024 would give Toyota more positive PR than it would have ever garnered by keeping its streak intact. Although it may not have seemed like it at the time, perhaps the ACO and the FIA did the Japanese auto giant a favour…

Read Also:
A 2024 fightback win for Toyota could generate plenty of positive headlines

A 2024 fightback win for Toyota could generate plenty of positive headlines

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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