Toyota is hoping its dominant showing over the first two rounds of the FIA WEC is a sign of impending Le Mans success.
Toyota head into the 24 Hours of Le Mans after having won both of the opening rounds of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship. The team’s #8 and #9 TS 050 Hybrids finished Saturday’s WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps 1-2 and separated by just 1.992 seconds.
The #2 and #1 Porsche 919 Hybrids took 3-4 after the #1 car was unable to convert a shock pole position into a race win.
Despite Toyota dominating the three practice sessions preceding yesterday’s qualifying for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of defending FIA World Endurance Championship champion Neel Jani and his teammates Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy effectively ‘stole’ the overall pole position for today’s race at the 7.004km, 20-turn circuit as well as in the LMP1-Hybrid class.
With a lap of 1min 54.097sec, Porsche beat the #7 Toyota team of Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi by just 0.596 seconds. Two more Toyota TS 050 Hybrids completed the first two rows of the starting grid.
Stephane Sarrazin, Yuji Kunimoto and Nicolas Lapierre in the #9 Toyota were just 0.008 seconds behind the #7 car. The #8 Toyota was fourth on the grid ahead of the #2 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber were fifth with the next fastest LMP1 car only 11th overall and almost 10 seconds behind the pole-sitter.
The race is unlikely to be much of an indication of how things will play out at Le Mans, however, with teams likely to run vastly different aerodynamic settings.
The #26 G-Drive car won the LMP2 class ahead of a fighting field that saw many wheel-to-wheel battles among cars that are – as per the regulations – pretty much identical in terms of chassis and engines with just the setups differing among the various teams.
The #34 Tockwith Motorsport entry that featured a returning Karun Chandhok was unable to finish the race. Chandhok made his return to sportscar racing in an LM3 Cup race in Great Britain and is returning to the WEC after skipping the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year.
Chandhok, Moore and Hanson qualified 12th overall and 6th in the LMP2 class that has ten entrants.
The #71 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE took a dominant win in the GTE Pro class from pole position. The #51 Ferrari came home in second to wrap up a great weekend for the Italian manufacturer, having beaten their big rivals Ford, whose #66 and #67 GTs took third and fourth.
Neither Porsche or Aston Martin have been able to challenge the Italian and American manufacturers and trail both in the GT World Endurance Manufacturer’s Championship. Ford maintain a lead in the driver’s championship, however.
But the main question on everyone’s mind will be if Toyota can get over the rotten luck that has plagued them in the most famous sportscar race of them all? Remember that Toyota came within less than a minute of winning Le Mans last year before the TS040 ground to a halt on the main straight for everyone to see as Porsche coasted past to claim victory.
The Japanese giants had nowhere to hide from that gut-wrenching failure to win a race that has been eluding them since 1999. And while winning in Silverstone and Spa is good news for them this year, Porsche only used the Le Mans-spec aerodynamic package after the Belgian round.
They have even completed a race simulation run that exceeded 6,600km. The distance covered by the winning car at Le Mans is over 1,000km less than that. Toyota may be celebrating now, but the real battle will come only at the biggest stage of the year. Sportscar racing fans should brace themselves for a great fight, especially as Toyota has entered three cars this time around. Ball’s in your court now, Porsche.