Can Mike Conway and co break their Le Mans curse in 2021?

Le Mans News

Toyota looks set to make it four-in-a-row at Le Mans, but can the No.7 car finish on the top step for the first time?

Mike Conway, Toyota, Le Mans 2021

Will the No.7 Toyota team break its Le Mans hoodoo this year?

James Moy Photography/Getty Images

“We had a bad journey coming in yesterday, had really bad rain on the way here from Lyon so hopefully that’s the bad weather out the way. We were delayed getting into the track, our vaccinations that we got in America was an issue arriving here. Hopefully that’s all our bad luck out the way.”

For one half of the Toyota contingent at Le Mans, luck has always seemingly evaded the team at the World Endurance Championship’s crown jewel event.

Mike Conway and his team-mates in the number 7 car have been in race-winning positions at the Circuit de la Sarthe only to have their hopes of 24-hour triumph dashed due to various bouts of technical trouble and old-fashioned bad luck.

Whether it be 2019’s final-hour tyre sensor going haywire, mechanical issues in 2020 curtailing a strong performance or the clutch letting the team down and forcing a retirement in 2017, nothing seems to go right for him and the team when it counts at Le Mans.

This year though, Conway and team-mates Kamui Kobayashi and José María López appear to be peaking at just the right time, starting the season with a third-place finish at Spa, second at the subsequent Portuguese round and victory at Monza last time out.

While many are predicting a Toyota walkover and fourth-consecutive Le Mans victory, the team is not taking anything lightly coming into race week. New regulations mean that 2021 will be the first race for the Hypercars at Le Mans since their introduction.

With new cars come potential new issues, and there have been a fair few according to Conway as drivers and engineers learn how to operate the complex Hypercars. And this time, the fight isn’t just Toyota versus Toyota for the win.

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The new era has brought new competition in the form of Alpine with its grandfathered LMP1 effort as well as Glickenhaus. The American squad will run its two 007 LMH cars as the direct Hypercar competition to the Japanese manufacturer, with the number 709 team securing a season-best finish of third at Monza.

Chewing through the data from earlier rounds has been a big part of the Toyota build-up to Le Mans as the team hopes to minimise any more ill fortune for its drivers, but Conway believes that even with the team’s best-laid plans, there is always scope for an unforseen outcome in the new era of WEC.

“There’s so much to digest, it’s actually worth having a chat with your engineer to go back over and make sure you don’t forget anything, there’s a lot of details to be written down.

“This year, in the new car there’s lots of new things that we’re learning still. Like some of the stuff we had at Monza, some of the stuff we had at Spa so it’s actually a bit harder this year even though we learn from all the previous results we can implement into this one, there’s still new things that come up. It’s actually one of the harder ones for sure.

“From the first test we’ve had things that didn’t go as planned or had little gremlins that popped up and we don’t know why. So since day one, we’ve been constantly changing things, software, parts of the system, procedures, even all the pit stop stuff the guys do – the fuelling, the timings. From day one of the new car until now, we’ve been optimising and making adjustments.

“Some are bigger than others but they all count towards improvements. That will continue, through the whole era of Hypercar. It’ll be a case of drivers learning how the car reacts to set-up changes, but we learn something every time we’re in the car.

“New systems, new procedures. Some stuff we carry over but the driver manual changes constantly because we’re developing and changing things. It’s actually more in terms of preparation and procedure-wise than we’ve had before. You’ll relearn everything when you get out on track, that’s part of Le Mans.”

Toyota Le Mans 2019

Conway, Kobayashi and López looked set for a certain victory in 2019 until a sensor issue deprived them in the final hour

James Moy Photography/Getty Images

Even with the forensic-level analysis of a top team in endurance racing’s premier championship, there is only so much that can be done to ensure a smooth 24 hours, and even then an entirely clean race is unlikely.

Numerous unforeseen eventualities can play out and ruin a driver’s stint or even an entire team’s hopes no matter how much number-crunching goes on pre-race.

The long layout of the Le Mans circuit opens the door to plenty of unpredictability before you put Hypercars and GTE’s side-by-side for 24 hours.

From the archive

“You can be behind a GTE driver or LMP2 driver when you’re slowing down into a slow zone, they slow down too early and straight away you lose time. If you’ve got a car ahead of you that you’re trying to fight, they gain an advantage. If you’re only a tenth or two quicker than that guy, they gain an advantage and getting it back again is so hard.

“You only need a few of those to go in your favour or not go in your favour and the race looks very different all of a sudden. This track challenges you in a way that other ones don’t. One minute maybe you’re a minute ahead, and the guy behind can completely miss a slow zone, you arrive there and straight away you lose up to a minute, even more depending on how long the slow zone is.

“There’s some luck involved there but I really feel it swings around. The last couple of years, we got really lucky at the beginning and pulled out a big advantage but then in the night, it went the other way and cars behind gained on us.

“You feel like you might have the advantage in one part of the race and then you might not have it later. It changes constantly but whatever’s thrown at you, you just have to adapt as best you can.”

Ahead of Le Mans, just six points separate the two Toyota teams, with the number 8 squad of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Kazuki Nakajmia heading up the Hypercar championship standings from Conway, Kobayashi and López.

“We aren’t doing anything wrong in terms of us driving, we just need a bit of luck.”

Le Mans will, as usual, offer double the number of points than the rest of the championship but a strong finish can’t be taken for granted according to the 37-year-old, who has experienced more than a fair share of misfortune over the years at the marque race.

Despite the pressures of defending series champions and deficit in the standings, Conway insists that there is no point agonising over a single race, even if the points payout could change the outlook for the remainder of the season.

“We know how quickly things can change. We still have two races in Bahrain and one is an eight-hour which is worth more points. We could make a huge dent in the championship if we get a good result here.

“In a way, whatever happens, we have to go to Bahrain and can’t relax.”

Last season, the no.7 team had taken pole, led comfortably for much of the race until a mechanical fault forced Kobayashi to relinquish the lead to the sister Toyota. Conway and co eventually struggled on to a P3 finish but it was another agonising near-miss for the ill-fated trio.

The year before it was a similar story but even more painful result to take. Pole turned into relative dominance at the front and they looked set for victory until the 23rd hour. A sensor issue incorrectly fed information about a puncture to the no.7 car, requiring López to forfeit the lead of the race for an emergency stop. They eventually finished 17sec down on the race-winning no.8 crew after victory had looked assured.

It has got to the point that Conway doesn’t reflect too long on previous visits to Le Mans and instead focuses on what is within his and his co-pilot’s control.

“I always say that ‘I hope so’ but who knows. I’ve felt like that a lot of times. The seven car, I feel, is always one of the quickest here many many times now but unfortunately the result hasn’t been on our side.

“We can only keep doing what we’re doing, we aren’t doing anything wrong in terms of us driving, we just need a bit of luck.”