It took 20 attempts for Toyota to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But since first getting its hands on the trophy in 2018, the company has refused to let go, winning the last four races by a comfortable margin of at least four laps.
This year, Toyota will take on French sports car brand Alpine, which is owned by Renault, and American boutique sports car company Glickenhaus in the Le Mans Hypercar class to battle for overall victory from Saturday. Neither has won Le Mans before, making it a tough challenge to stop Toyota.
“Toyota is so strong,” said Alpine team principal Philippe Sinault. “We know it’s David versus Goliath.”
But the signs in the direction of Le Mans suggest that Toyota could face tougher competition this year. In March, Alpine won the opening race of the World Endurance Championship at Sebring in Florida, before Glickenhaus took pole position at Spa in Belgium. Although Toyota won the Spa race, the team came away feeling their advantage had shrunk since Le Mans last year.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re on the defensive,” said Mike Conway, one of the drivers who won Le Mans for Toyota last year. “It was more difficult, for sure. But I guess that’s what we want to see, all much closer.
“As you’ve seen over the past couple of years, Alpine has been pretty bulletproof in terms of reliability. Glickenhaus has been pretty good. So we have a lot on our plate.
Rob Leupen, Toyota’s team principal, said the “smallest mistake” would be expensive this year and no team could afford to waste time fixing their cars during the race.
“The cars are close,” he said. “No one has a real excess of performance over others, so reliability and teamwork are key, and I think here we are experienced to meet that challenge.”
To encourage close competition between the leading cars in the Hypercar category, Le Mans organisers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, use a system called Balance of Performance, known as BOP, to prevent teams from have a big advantage. The BOP can adjust the power output or revise the speed at which hybrid power can be used. Last year for Toyota it was 75mph, but it dropped to 120mph at the start of the season, reducing its advantage over the non-hybrid Alpine and Glickenhaus cars.
“You don’t develop the full potential of every car,” Leupen said. “You keep it in the ballpark of performance balance to give everyone an equal chance.”
Jim Glickenhaus, owner of his namesake team, felt the balance of performance rules at Le Mans last year were “completely unfair” and denied his cars the chance to beat Toyota.
“I said I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t have a fair BOP, and in fairness to them, they really work to get a fair BOP,” said Glickenhaus, who pointed to the 0 gap, 3 seconds covering his team, Toyota and Alpine in qualifying at Spa.
“We feel very strong for Le Mans this year, and if they keep tweaking the BOP, I think we could win Le Mans. Am I saying we will? No of course not. But we could.
Brazil’s Luis Felipe Derani said it was “amazing to see how much the Glickenhaus team has improved and advanced” since finishing fourth at Le Mans with the team last year.
“At Spa you saw we were there with them, apart from the very end where we made a mistake in strategy which took away our chance to fight with Toyota,” Derani said. “It’s a really nice challenge to take on, when you see what such a small group of people can achieve when they work really, really hard against a giant like Toyota.”
Glickenhaus is focused on building a less expensive non-hybrid car that still has “an equal chance of winning and is less complex.” Glickenhaus said he was encouraged by the possibility of fighting to win Le Mans against a global constructor.
“The idea that you even say Glickenhaus and Toyota in the same sentence is a joke,” he said. “We are second in the WEC Drivers’ Championship ahead of Toyota. Think about it.
Alpine is counting on home support to try to become the first French team to win Le Mans since Peugeot in 2009. Alpine drivers André Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxivière lead the championship. Sinault said they remained underdogs against Toyota, but were convinced there was “something to play for” at Le Mans.
“It will be fantastic to win at Le Mans with Alpine, a French brand with a French spirit,” said Sinault. “But we try to stay out of that thinking. We know we are under a lot of pressure.
Leupen was reluctant to accept the David vs. Goliath comparison with Toyota’s rivals. “You have to have all the respect for them, and you mustn’t belittle them,” he said. “We have to be careful because Alpine and Glickenhaus are two very serious competitors watching us.”
If it can win the race, Toyota would become just the fourth manufacturer after Porsche, Ferrari and Audi to win Le Mans at least five times in a row. Leupen said it would be the “biggest reward” for the team. “With the drivers, I’m confident,” he said. “With the whole team working with each other, I think we should be in a very good position to show some good performance.”
The challenge of running a car reliably for 24 hours makes Le Mans one of the toughest races in motorsport, regardless of competition. Toyota almost had to retire both of its cars in last year’s race due to a fuel pressure issue, while in 2016 it lost the race to Porsche despite leading comfortably after its car suffered a sudden loss of power on the last lap.
“The end result does not depend solely on pure performance, especially at Le Mans,” said Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. “It’s a long and demanding race for the riders and the machines. Every team knows that it is impossible to predict the outcome.
“Surprises happen every year, in all classes, even in the last round. Alpine and Glickenhaus have worked particularly hard over the past few months, and I’m confident they’ll put on a great show.
An added incentive for drivers and teams will be the return of full grandstands after two years of racing with Covid-19 restrictions in place. The race has returned to its usual June dates, having been held in September 2020 and August 2021.
Conway said it was “strange” to be on the podium last year lifting the trophy without the “sea of people” that usually thronged the track after the checkered flag to celebrate the winners. “It was definitely not the same,” he said. “We have missed the fans for the past two years. It should be a full house, and I can’t wait to see it.
Fillon said organizers had “waited for this moment for far too long” to welcome a capacity of 250,000 people again after being limited to 50,000 last year.
“I am obviously delighted that we have full stands again and that we can enjoy this special atmosphere at the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” said Fillon. “This event is not the same without the tens of thousands of fans on the racecourse, and we have planned many activities to celebrate their return.
“Endurance racing is an accessible sport where hordes of fans can come together, and it’s something we must strive to keep alive.”