Unlucky Squirrel Might Have Cost Toyota the 2023 Le Mans Win
An impact with a squirrel caused engine temperatures to spike, which bled off the No. 8’s pace over the course of a stint.
There are countless problems that could pop up and cost a team a win—or even a finish—in an endurance race. The longer the running, the more variables populate the equation, too. This past weekend, Ferrari cut Toyota off from extending its 24 Hours of Le Mans winning streak to six. The top-position No. 8 Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 Hybrid held off the rival No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 499P quite well, but as originally reported by Motorsport.com, an impact with a squirrel caused Toyota's hypercar to bleed time and lose pace to the prancing horse.
Toyota's other entry, the No. 7 of Kobayashi, Conway, and Lopez, retired from the race due to an incident involving several other cars. This left just the No. 8 to defend Toyota's title on the famous French circuit. This was only one instance of hardship at this year's race; Cadillac had its share of setbacks as well.
Around the same time is when the No. 8 Toyota started experiencing issues. “At that moment, we really thought we would lose the two cars because, at the same time [as Kobayashi’s incident], we had the engine temperature going sky high on the No. 8,” Toyota Technical Director Pascal Vasselon told Motorsport.com of Hirokawa's stint.
This is normally due to debris like tire chunks, tiny pieces of bodywork, or mud building up on the front of cars. They block cool air from keeping oil, coolant, and intake temperatures in check. The thing is, the team couldn't mend the No. 8 until the end of Hirokawa's stint, at which point Toyota's 12-second lead was completely extinguished.
In the pits, the front end of the car didn't appear damaged. However, pulling it off quickly revealed the issue. "We decided to remove the front end, change it and have a look. There was a big piece of Kevlar which was stuck inboard of the suspension, but blocking the flow of the cooler. We could remove it and keep going," Vasselon said.
After remedying the issue, Toyota fought hard to fully regain the lead but couldn't quite match Ferrari's pace. Then, with less than three hours to go, Hirokawa spun and guaranteed Ferrari's first overall win at la Sarthe in 58 years.
This is a testament to the immense difficulty of endurance racing. There are so many variables, so much that can go wrong. It takes a herculean effort to keep every car and team function running flawlessly and efficiently. Even when a team does everything correctly, things can go nuts. Sorry.
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