Audi is notorious for always running three cars, Nissan plans to, Porsche may, so why is Toyota against it?
This year’s edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans wasn’t the first time that mechanical woes have denied Toyota the ultimate prize in sports car racing.
In 1994, Eddie Irvine, Mauro Martini and Jeff Krosnoff were on course for the Japanese marque’s first victory in the French endurance classic before gearbox problems for their 94C-V demoted them to second place with less than two hours to run.
Four years later, history repeated itself as the leading Toyota GT-One of Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees suffered a similar failure at around the same point in the race, except this time the car was forced to retire.
The GT-One could also have taken honours in 1999 had a puncture in the final hour not demoted Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki to the runner-up spot.
Denied once again in 2014
And so, after another near miss this year when the No. 7 Toyota of Alexander Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima retired with an electrical failure while in a commanding lead, it was a surprise to hear Toyota’s admission that they have all but ruled out running three cars at Le Mans in 2015.
The Audi state of mind
When Audi lost the No. 3 car early on during this year’s race, it still had two more chances to go on and win the event while Toyota was left with just one, which was ultimately squandered by the melted wiring loom that brought the leading No. 7 car to a standstill.
That the No. 8 car, which was ruled out of winning contention by the same accident that put the number No. 3 car into retirement, went on to have a more-or-less trouble-free run after its early drama serves to underline what could have been for Toyota had there been an additional TS040 HYBRID ready to take up the baton.
The logic is simple - the more cars a team is able to run, the greater the chances of at least one of them getting through the entire 24 hours, relatively smoothly. Though each additional car provides diminishing returns, the benefits of running three instead of two are obvious.
Sacrificing quality for quantity?
Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon said that the team would not want to divert its existing resources away from development and towards running a third car, an understandable concern. After all, what use is a third car if all three entries are slower than the opposition?
That’s why Toyota needs to grant its motorsport division the extra cash needed to field a third entry without compromising development. The world’s largest auto maker by sales last year, it’s hardly as if the corporation lacks the resources to do so.
It should be added that Vasselon stressed that the final decision on running a third car was yet to be made, suggesting that the budget allocated to the team by the Toyota board is yet to be finalised.
If this is the case, Vasselon and the rest of the Cologne outfit need to do everything possible to convince the powers that be to loosen the corporation’s purse strings and match the commitment shown by Toyota’s rivals.
Nissan will do it, further limiting Toyota's chances at victory
Nissan, which is making its return to La Sarthe next year as a full-blown works entry for the first time since 1999, plans to run three cars from the outset, a clear statement of the company’s intent.
That means Toyota will have at least eight rival factory prototypes – or nine, if Porsche decides to expand their assault to three cars, in order to overcome the odda in its bid to take home an elusive maiden Le Mans win in 2015, a number that could swell further if more manufacturers join the LMP1 class in the following years.
Regardless, with Porsche and Nissan only likely to get stronger as time goes on, next year could prove to be Toyota’s last clear shot at glory. However, the team’s chances of capitalising on it will be greatly diminished if it goes into battle with only two cars as it has done for the last three years.
Give yourself the best chance possible
It’s not hard to see why Toyota may be reluctant to go all-out financially in pursuit of motorsport success, given that the firm’s Formula One programme failed to bear fruit despite having hundreds of millions of dollars injected into it.
But, the Japanese firm wouldn’t be involved in sports car racing at all if it failed to see the marketing benefits of being active in the sport.
For that reason, it’s time for Toyota to forget about its past failures and stump up the cash needed to enter three competitive cars at Le Mans in 2015, and give itself the best possible chance of finally breaking its duck.