"As it is, our chances at Le Mans are very, very small"
Toyota had high hopes of Le Mans success when it launched the latest version of its hybrid sports-prototype. But now after the Spa 6 Hours it has grave doubts that Audi can be beaten
writer Gary Watkins
The mood has changed in the Toyota camp. Big time. At the launch of the 2013 version of its T5030 Hybrid in February, the team and its drivers made no secret of their belief that they were favourites for this year’s World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Three months later, however, the Japanese manufacturer had changed its tune. It has been trying to win the race for more than a quarter century, on and off, but by its own admission a first victory remains a long shot.
There was a caveat to that early-season optimism, however. Pascal Vasselon, technical director at Toyota Motorsport in Cologne, was at pains to stress that arch-rival Audi would not be idle over the winter in the wake of the end-of-season drubbing the R18 e-tron quattro received at the hands of the original iteration of Toyota’s T5030 petrol-electric LMP1 hybrid. The Japanese company, remember, won three of the final four WEC races on its return to front-line international sports car racing with a part-season in the 2012 WEC.
“They will have been working hard over the winter and we know they will have reacted,” Vasselon said ahead of the season’s dawn. “They have been operating in endurance racing at a very high level for 14 years, so we expect them to be back.”
That knowledge, or perhaps fear, didn’t stop him hinting that Toyota could and should be considered favourite for world championship honours in 2013. Le Mans, he stressed, was a different story.
“It is more acceptable to see us as favourite for the championship than for Le Mans,” he said. “We can be considered favourite for the six-hour races, because we have achieved reliability over that distance. But that’s not the case at Le Mans because we have never done 24 hours. We can only be regarded as pushy challengers.”
Toyota believed it would be snapping at the heels of a manufacturer that has triumphed 11 times in those 14 years. After all, on its debut with the T5030 it had taken the fight to Audi for much of the first six hours. “Winning Le Mans has to be our target,” Vasselon added. “We realise there is work to be done and that we are not there yet.”
That view has changed after the first two WEC rounds of 2013, at Silverstone and then Spa. Toyota was barely in the game at the series opener in Britain, where it turned up with a pair of 2012-specification T5030s, and in Belgium there was firm evidence to suggest that the 2013 version of the car is not a match for the long-tail R18 e-tron quattro Audi will run at Le Mans.
Vasselon now says Toyota effectively has no chance on June 22/23. “As it is, our chances at Le Mans are very, very small,” Vasselon said in the aftermath of Audi’s 1-2-3 result at Spa in May. “We are not happy with the situation and if we are not happy it is because we know we cannot fight Audi.”
That discontent stems from the rules, or the so-called Balance of Performance, governing two different drivetrain concepts: Toyota’s normally aspirated petrol-engined V8 and Audi’s V6 turbodiesel.
There was a change over the winter in Toyota’s favour, or rather against Audi, a three per cent reduction in the engine air-restrictor diameter for turbodiesels. Toyota didn’t seem unduly unhappy with that.
“Our calculations are that it should be a bit more,” Vasselon says, “but the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and the FIA [which jointly write the rules for the WEC] have access to some data we don’t have. We have accepted that there has been a fair process and the adjustment was what it had to be.
“There is just one thing left, which might prove problematical, and that is the number of pitstops. We still need one more stop [to complete a six-hour race] and in some cases, with safety cars and so on, it can be a big problem. That is the last item on the agenda.”
Vasselon’s pre-season words seem prescient. Not because the latest version of the Audi R18 e-tron quattro has stretched its advantage between pitstops, but because the German manufacturer has simply turned its economy advantage into horsepower.
The Audi now goes less distance than the Toyota between stops, and by some margin. A three-lap advantage at Silverstone last year, for example, has turned into a two-lap deficit in April. The gap between the two Le Mans contenders at Spa was the same. Vasselon points out that this equates to an increase in consumption of 20 per cent on the Audi’s part.
Turning that former economy advantage into power is an option open to a manufacturer running diesels. The greater efficiency of the diesel combustion process means that pumping more fuel into the cylinders increases power.
This much was made clear, claims Toyota, by the black smoke emitted from the back of the Audis over the course of the event at Spa. And that’s another cause for complaint: the regulations do not permit such smoke.
The rulemakers’ mistake over the winter was to ignore this possibility, Vasselon says. “It was wrong to concentrate only on the power side and leave the fuel [capacity],” he says. “If we leave one of the two open, then diesel technology can exploit this.”
Toyota kept its powder dry in the immediate aftermath of its drubbing at Spa, considered its position and then called for a change to the BoP. “We consider that an evolution of the BoP is needed,” Vasselon says. “The process [to change it] exists, it is underway and we will have to see what it delivers. We do not underestimate how difficult it is for the FIA and the ACO to do it right, but we believe they want to do it right.”
Just how bad is the situation for Toyota? It depends how the Spa results are interpreted. Drawing comparisons is difficult because the two manufacturers ran four different car configurations between them. Conclusions relevant to the 24 Hours can only be made by comparing the solo 2013 Toyota, shared by Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima, with the Le Mans-spec, long-tail variant of the R18. And even then it is difficult.
Audi appeared able to load more downforce to the long-tail than Toyota could with its Le Mans car, which skews any comparison, but the undeniable fact is that the best lap from the Audi in the new-for-2013 aggregate qualifying system was nearly two seconds faster than that of the Japanese car.
The new Toyota did run ahead of the long-tail Audi for the first half of the race, until its retirement with overheating rear brakes following the failure of its energy-retrieval system, though this resulted from a slow first stint on the part of the R18. The Le Mans R18 was, overall, faster in the race, but by a significantly reduced margin to qualifying. Toyota has its theories for this.
“We looked better in the race but it was entirely related to the Audi’s engine settings,” says Vasselon. Did he believe Audi had chosen to run less power? “Exactly,” he says. “It is a clear conclusion.”
It is not all bad news for Toyota. It now has the upper hand on fuel economy, and two laps of the four-mile Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps should turn into a one-lap advantage around the eight and half miles of Le Mans, the same advantage Audi enjoyed last year. There was also evidence from Belgium that the new Toyota looks after its Michelin tyres better than the Audi.
The most galling fact for Toyota is that its new car is an undoubted step forward on its predecessor. The latest T5030 was significantly faster than the 2012 car at Spa, despite running the low-downforce configuration in which it will race at Le Mans. The older car was in higher-downforce trim and therefore more suited to the Belgian track.
Design team leader John Litjens describes the new Toyota as an update of its forebear.
“There hasn’t been a revolution, just an evolution,” he says. “The main point is that we have removed the option for the front motor, which meant producing a new monocoque that allowed us more freedom in the design process.”
The original T5030 tested with energyretrieval systems working off the front axle (the concept used by Audi) and the rear wheels (the route Toyota eventually took). The revised tub has resulted in gains in terms of weight loss, aerodynamics and serviceability.
The front aero looks less aggressive than last year’s Formula 1-inspired set-up, but Vasselon stressed that there have been significant gains. “What you can see is not the most impressive-looking part of the car; the important things are not visible,” he says. “The concept of the splitter and everything that is facing the ground is very different and altogether much more efficient.”
That includes brake cooling. The two scoops integrated into the wishbone fairings in 2012 have disappeared. They were, says Vasselon, “too invasive”.
The new Toyota is not only faster than its predecessor, it is easier to drive and more user-friendly. “The driving position has changed,” Lapierre says. “It was a bit tricky last year; because of the capacitor we were over on the left side, but now we have moved towards the middle of the car. The visibility is better; all these little details help.”
Anthony Davidson, who finished fourth in the old car at Spa with Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastien Buemi, likes the changes to the steering and the brakes.
“The steering ratio has been changed, which gives more feedback to the driver,” he says. “I was always saying that the brake pedal was quite long and soft, which made it hard for us drivers to monitor a front brake lock-up. We have a much stiffer pedal now and I feel much more confident.”
Toyota believes it has made progress in terms of repairability in the wake of a mechanical failure or an accident, though it is not claiming it will be a match for Audi in this respect. “We have a slightly different philosophy,” Vasselon says. “The strategy of the team was to build a quick car and then improve the level of serviceability rather than starting with a bulldozer and trying to extract performance.
“But there are several areas that are not obvious that have really changed in terms of maintenance. I would not say we are as extreme as Audi, but we have taken a good step towards them.”
It isn’t clear how much of a step Toyota has taken towards the `unburstability’ of a typical Le Mans Audi. Vasselon says the team is happy with the progress the team has made in terms of durability, but isn’t telling us how the latest T5030 went over the three of the planned four Le Mans simulations that had been completed at press time.
The rhetoric from Toyota is that the 2013 car has completed the required distance, albeit with some issues. These, it claims, have not been what it terms “car stoppers”.
The truth probably won’t become clear until deep into the 24 Hours. The big question will be whether the two Toyotas will still be within touching distance of the Audi fleet on Sunday morning — and that might well depend on the FIA and ACO.
The healing process
Toyota star Anthony Davidson was 2013 Le Mans accident, but there a sidelined for six months after his are positive sides to every story
Davidson is almost half an inch shorter as a result of last year’s headline-making Le Mans accident that put him in hospital with two broken vertebrae. The mishap also triggered another change, a mental one he believes could help him achieve his ambition of winning the biggest prize in sports car racing.
“Maybe, just maybe, it was the thing I need to win Le Mans,” says the 34-year-old Toyota racer, back at the 24 Hours for a fifth consecutive time and a sixth in total. “I was one of the pushiest drivers in traffic and gained a lot of time as a result, but in my first race back [the Daytona 24 Hours in January, with the 8Star Motorsports team], I discovered something else.
“I was still taking risks in traffic,” he says, “but there was another element to my approach — a bit of extra mistrust with other drivers. I gave them a little more time to do something out of the ordinary. I was expecting the unexpected, if you like.”
One unexpected move from a backmarker can put you in hospital, but it can also be the difference between winning Le Mans and finishing second. Davidson knew that before last year’s race, but now he reckons it is ingrained in his psyche.
“The accident clearly wasn’t my fault,” he says, “but you can learn from every occasion and I feel I have learnt from it.”
He was sidelined for a little more than six months and didn’t drive a racing car again until January. He admits it was tough mentally, but says that he is over the experience.
“Lying on your back for such a long time isn’t a lot of fun,” he says. “I didn’t feel like a racing driver for a long time.”
That feeling gradually disappeared during his first laps in a kart and subsequent sessions on the Mercedes Formula 1 simulator, then went away for good when he climbed back into a racing car proper at the official pre-Daytona test.
“In the beginning you can’t do anything yourself; you can’t even bend over and pick things up,” says Davidson, who carries an X-ray image of his damaged back on his iPhone. “It was a long road to recovery and every month that goes past — no, every week that goes past, you realise that you can do more with your body.”
Davidson knew he was fully fit from his first time back in a car at Daytona.
“I knew I would be OK because I had been told the bone was 100 per cent okay. I was worried that there could be some discomfort, but there is zero pain, not even over the kerbs. I don’t even think about it now.”