The Formula Behind Toyota’s Unrivaled 24 Hours of Le Mans Bid
A dive into the administrative hierarchy behind Toyota’s best shot at victory yet.
It's difficult to remember the last time we've seen a situation like Toyota's at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. The manufacturer-backed effort, looking to become the second Japanese team to take overall victory at Circuit de la Sarthe, stands as the big dog in a field of privateers which boasts just a fraction of the auto giant's budget. While a major name overshadowing that of its competition isn't out of the ordinary in racing, it's actually Toyota's misfortune at Le Mans that has matter-of-factly brought it to the advantage it holds in 2018.
The backstory of Toyota's tragedy-turned-favor can be summed up by last year's running of the day-long French classic.
In a bout fought with Porsche in the Stuttgart team's final Le Mans LMP1 contest, Toyota Gazoo Racing was making headway toward becoming a surefire-bet for the race win. The team's No. 7 TS050 Hybrid was looking dominant with Kamui Kobayashi driving in the 10th hour, clearing a one-minute lead over the second-placed Porsche. Upon a restart that stemmed from a late-night caution, Kobayashi failed to get back up to speed due to a critical clutch issue. This resulted in an untimely trip to the garage for the No. 7 car, and in turn, the lead was surrendered to its rival.
Things were looking hopeful for the team later on as Porsche was facing issues of its own. However, despite the glimmers of what Toyota thought to be its winning fate later in the race, its remaining No. 9 entry was struck by an LMP2 car which concluded in drivetrain damage. While the Gazoo squad would eventually rejoin the race, it would do so 30 laps down of the leader. Decisively, it was Porsche that went out on the mountaintop and left Toyota to mourn what it believed was its best chance to date at a historic win around the French circuit.
Now, we stand in the present where the odds and even the rules are constructed in Toyota's favor. So what series of bureaucratic decisions brought the team from the depths to the potential peak of endurance racing's Everest?
Fernando Alonso's Triple Crown Expedition
Up until now, discussion of Alonso's significance to Toyota has grown stale with incessant media coverage and hearsay—but that doesn't make it any less essential in what could be the most historically important European race.
Alonso is a tremendously-accomplished well-established competitor who's won at Monaco and competed at Indy with more attempts likely in the future. His worldwide notoriety always rides on the coattails of whatever team he's driving for, and in the case of Toyota, that's exactly what's needed to push its efforts into the stratosphere. Success, talent, and yes, even sex appeal, are proving vital to the days leading up to another crack at the coveted P1 finish.
Much like the patron saint he's viewed as by the masses, Alonso pledges to lift "the curse" that has plagued Toyota and its congregation in years past. That's not to say that his stablemates aren't Grade-A competitors, (Kobayashi still holds the lap record at la Sarthe from his blitzing run in qualifying last year,) but instead that Alonso will take on the challenges that Mike Conway, Sebastien Buemi, and others in the crew's stable have been dealing with in the last two years.
Alonso told reporters at Le Mans this week, “It’s very special to drive for Toyota, this team, with its experience. We know how competitive we can be. It’s still going to be a challenge to win the race, Toyota hasn’t won here before, but we are committed to change history, and this year we are as prepared as we could be. We’ve done good winter testing, good endurance runs. We hope we can do well this weekend.”
That quote stings with humility, a trait that Alonso possesses in lieu of braggadocious confidence.
As the Spaniard mentioned, he doesn't feel like Toyota is all alone at the front of the field. He re-asserted this by continuing, "I think this year is the best Le Mans. Normally there are four cars fighting, but this year there are 10 ... The people that say there are two this year, I think they’ve never watched the 24 Hours."
That may or may not be an overly-generous comment; Alonso's is a complex situation in a chess match. Just look back to the FIA World Endurance Championship season-opener at Spa.
Toyota's Debatable Affinity
At May's initial round of the 2018/19 WEC super season, Toyota pulled the card that many were afraid of when news of Alonso joining the crew hit the stands. Following clips of the two-time world champion and the rest of his No. 8 crew celebrating their win, word was mentioned of a decision in the pits that withdrew the team's two LMP1 entries' right to fight for the victory, fixing the running order and orchestrating the victory for 'Nando & Co. whether or not the plan was to have Alonso finish first beforehand is contentious, but on the outside, it's difficult to be sure of the situation's integrity.
Team orders are commonplace, particularly when the involved outfit is aiming for a bigger-picture goal such as the season championship. Toyota was and is working towards the best result possible regardless of circumstance. However, the No. 7 car appeared faster early on at the Six Hours of Spa and the move to place it behind the eventual winner eerily hinted that the cogs might be turning in support of Alonso's legacy.
Take this into the consideration that something similar may go down on Saturday and Sunday at Le Mans. Is this a heralded strategy for Toyota? Possibly. Given Alonso's dedication to drive the full WEC schedule with the team alongside his primary commitment at McLaren F1, it seems partially fair that they may give him the benefit of a call from the pits.
After all, the FIA and WEC collaborated to shift the schedule for Alonso as to not interfere with his Formula 1 calendar. Why would Gazoo go against the star?
Rulemakers and Series Officials Give Them a Competition Advantage
As mentioned previously, Toyota is the only full-blown manufacturer entered in this year's LMP1 category at Le Mans alongside a grid of smaller, private teams. Partly because of that, it's also the only hybrid-driven competitor among the six teams in its class. WEC regulators have awarded the Japanese team for investing in this technology by reserving the right to penalize privateers in-race if they show pace that is faster than Toyota's. If officials deem non-hybrid cars to be too quick, they must serve a stop-and-go penalty that separates them into the "best of the rest" category.
The official 2018/19 sporting regulations read: "All competitors and manufacturers that deliberately provided misinformation, tried to influence the EoT [Equivolence of Technology] process, or whose level of performance is higher than the expected result may be sanctioned with a penalty before, during, or after a race."
A one-lap penalty may also be issued at the end of the race.
At least initially, the way that WEC is exercising its power seems like a game of favorites, with Toyota as the winner. The idea that the WEC is hurting privateer teams, who make up eight of the 10 LMP1 entries, comes off as ridiculous without context. But referencing back to the attitude that Toyota could have towards promoting Alonso, the WEC could also be viewed as a fool for not rewarding its highest-spending, hype-churning team which has invested literal hundreds of millions of dollars into its sport.
The more comprehensive this investigation becomes, the harder is to decide who's in the right, who's in the wrong, and if there are even explicit answers to those questions.
Nobody has the end-all say on what's considered ethical, and as a result, Toyota's performance and actions during this weekend's 24-hour run will construct the tale which is passed on from year to year afterward.
Legislative and political subjects aside, each member in Toyota's garage has a vendetta against Le Mans; Standing on the top step of the podium is the sole method to end the saga.