Toyota's biggest battle at Le Mans is breaking their 2022 form
The Japanese squad arrive in France after a troublesome start to the season
Toyota stand on the verge of a fifth consecutive 24h Le Mans victory. Achieve that, and they tie Audi's R8 dominance in 2004-2008 and the five wins scored by R15 and R18 models combined between 2010-2014.
However, the 2022 WEC form book would suggest that the Japanese marque will have a tough time adding another overall trophy to the collection in Cologne following an arduous start to the season. The opening round of the season at Sebring saw both GR010s unable to match the pace of the ex-LMP1 Alpine A480 throughout competitive running, and for the first time found themselves struggling to match the sole Glickenhaus SCG007 in qualifying – limited by an increase of 70km/h to the minimum speed for hybrid power deployment. After Thursday's timed session the #8 and #7 cars would line up fourth and seventh respectively. Their worst qualifying performance since they shared the top class with Porsche and Audi.
The race again presented the same issues, which were compounded when José Maria Lopez suffered a major incident close to the halfway point in the race. Contact with the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche left the Argentine pushing to make it back to pitlane to fix the apparent damage, before the nose of the #7 car dropped and negated any attempt to turn left into the high-speed T14 (Bishop). Ploughing into the barrier, the car rolled into a spectacular retirement. Driver uninjured.
Red-flag interruptions halted the GR010s ability to complete more laps per stint, and so the #36 Alpine was able to keep the competition at arm's length for the remaining hours on pace alone.
May saw the 6h of Spa provide the predictably unpredictable weather. A dry Saturday saw Toyota close the gap to the competition, albeit owing to a higher average speed around the 7km lap increasing the availability of the 200kW hybrid power, and due to Alpine having power knocked off in the changes to Balance of Performance.
Toyota locked out the second row.
Race day saw a dry start, but even then Glickenhaus were able to lead the first 20 minutes without much response from the GR010s. Toyota 1-2, normality restored? Not quite. The race would be red-flagged after Miro Konopka looped the #44 ARC Bratislava ORECA 07 into the wall on the exit of Campus and it would be at the resulting restart that trouble began.
The first shower swept in as cars waited on the grid for the restart, and as the race got under way behind the Safety Car, the race-leading #8 Toyota would take some time to pull away. A frantic Sebastien Buemi called over the radio that there was a significant problem – less than 90 minutes into a six hour race, the car would stutter from a standstill after 40 seconds that would have felt like a lifetime in the cockpit.
The car would stop twice around the next half-lap, once on the Kemmel Straight, and for the final time on the exit of Pouhon.
All hopes were pinned on the #7 to take Toyota back to the top step, but in the heavy rain that intersected the remaining four an a half hours the GR010 struggled to compete with a very handy Robin Frijns in the #31 WRT ORECA 07. LMP2 outpacing Hypercar with some conviction across a quarter of the race before at long last the sole GR010 would take to the front and lead the field home.
Akio Toyoda, Team Founder, and Driver-Principal Kamui Kobayashi displaying the highest level of unsatisfaction with how the race played, and despite a race victory both cars sit with near half the points of championship leaders Alpine.
Reliability, crashes, and lack of pace. Toyota had scored the dreaded hat-trick only two races in and the title defence was setting itself up to be one big uphill slog – even worse, Le Mans was only a month away. It is needless to recite the Japanese marque's countless attempts to win at La Sarthe, the seemingly unbreakable curse lifted in 2018 to trigger a run of four on the trot. But even last year's inaugural Hypercar triumph was not without considerable issue as both cars developed a serious fuel pickup issue that knocked around four laps off their total stint distance within hours of the checkered flag.
Toyota can ill afford any of the aforementioned issues to occur at Le Mans this year. Alpine have more than got their head around the ex-Rebellion R13, their pace in Sebring was unrelenting and despite being hampered by shorter fuel stints they have Toyota within reach across race distances.
The French crew will keep Toyota more than honest across a single 13.6km lap, and indeed the race only need to feature regular slow zones or the odd FCY to reduce that innate fuel advantage to allow the A480 to be causing headaches every stint.
Glickenhaus have also offered improved performance in 2022, and could present the surprise package – provided they can iron out some costly errors.
Race pace at Sebring wasn't far off Toyota, and the American privateer stood the best chance to challenge Alpine before a penalty for passing before the line after the first race restart saw them drop from the lead battle.
Spa would see Glickenhaus take their maiden pole position in convincing fashion, and led the first 20 minutes of the race. Despite heavy rain the #708 wouldn't fall too far from the #7 Toyota, however their challenge was undone by an incorrect tyre choice (brought on by pit-to-car radio issues) as the track dried – dropping the SCG007 behind six LMP2s before the checkered flag.
Bolstered by a second car for the 24h Le Mans, Glickenhaus only need a clean run to keep Toyota's drivers and strategy engineers awake throughout the race – albeit a clean run at La Sarthe is often hard to come by.
The point remains clear: Toyota are on the back foot. And must I make it clear, this is not an attempt to build up any sort of storyline to add Hollywood to, if they can achieve it, their fifth consecutive win. In fact this is simply a reiteration that the Hypercar class is wide open.
We might expect Toyota to have found something since Spa, and it would be foolish to think they won't be firing on all cylinders at the most important race of the season.
But if anyone is in desperate need of an uneventful race, if there is a team asking for a straightforward run from lights to flag, I'd expect every member of Toyota has been praying for exactly that since the checkered flag at Spa.