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At 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota Races Against Its Curse

Janay Lenhart

After the recent withdrawals of Audi and Porsche from the LMP1 class of Le Mans, along with Peugeot’s departure in 2012, Toyota is the only manufacturer competing in the top tier of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. With the field clear, you would think Toyota could simply cruise to victory.

But victory is far from assured for a team whose Le Mans history has been littered with near misses and odd mishaps. Having only itself to beat could be difficult enough.

“This year, we just go to fight Le Mans, not directly our competitors,” Pascal Vasselon, Toyota’s technical director, said. “That’s our challenge.”

Porsche dominated the race for years, but its announcement in 2017 that it would drop out and concentrate on Formula E caused something of a crisis in the World Endurance Championship, for which Le Mans is the signature event. Jean Todt, president of the International Automobile Federation (known by its French abbreviation, F.I.A.), said in May that the championship was “in an emergency situation.”

“Being in an emergency situation means we have to find some innovative solutions to prepare for the future, and that’s where we are,” he said.

Included in those innovations is a new approach to the calendar.

The W.E.C. has changed its calendar-year season to one that will be held over two years, with Le Mans running twice. The racing series is calling it a “super season,” which will be from April 2018 to June 2019. Le Mans will be held at the start and again at the end of the season, which will give Toyota two chances to win.

As the only remaining factory-backed team in the LMP1 category, Toyota has every advantage over the independent teams known as privateers. Toyota has the backing of a huge automotive research and development center, a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars and strong driver lineups in the two cars it is racing.

But the team also has the Toyota Le Mans curse to contend with.

Toyota’s recent history at the 24-hour race is a series of near misses. The team has finished second in the LMP1 class at Le Mans five times, but has never won.

Failure within reach of the finish line has become common for Toyota at the Circuit de la Sarthe, where the race is held. The gear linkage broke in the final 90 minutes in 1994. The car, a 94CV, was repaired in the pits, and the team finished second. In 1999, the GT-One was fighting for the lead when a tire blew.

Other high-profile failures included sump plug problems and a loss of gearbox oil in 1998, and a faulty sensor in 2014. In 2010, Toyota was clearly the fastest team on the track, but none of its three cars made it to the finish.

But no loss was more striking than the one in 2016, when the race leader, the last TS050 Hybrid on the track, lost power as it was crossing the finish line to begin its final lap. A fractured air line cost Toyota almost certain victory.

By 2017, Toyota’s only competition in the LMP1 category was Porsche. Toyota went all out to win the category, entering three cars, each with a Japanese driver on the three-person crew.

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