The 24 Hours of Le Mans in France is the world’s oldest active sportscar race in endurance racing having been run annually since 1923. To date, only one Japanese carmaker – Mazda – has been the overall victor in the legendary race and that was in 1991. Since then, no Japanese carmaker’s team has taken the chequered flag again but this year, Toyota GAZOO Racing, the company’s official motorsports team, believes it is on the brink of a Le Mans victory after a heart-breaking race last year.

The team enters the race which is the second round of the World Endurance Championship with two 1,000 ps TS050 HYBRID cars. Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez compete in the #7 car while Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima return in the #8 alongside Le Mans rookie Fernando Alonso.

After a 1-2 at Spa-Francorchamps in the first race of the season, the team expects to fight for victory in Toyota’s 20th attempt at Le Mans and feels well prepared following 25,000 kms of pre-season testing designed to enhance the performance and reliability of the racing cars.

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing has already proved its speed at Le Mans in recent years, having missed out on victory due to a penultimate-lap technical problem in 2016 and setting a record-breaking fastest lap to earn pole position last year. Now the team’s task is to meet the endurance challenge of Le Mans and become only the second Japanese manufacturer to win.

The team takes on the challenge of the race using around 35% less fuel than in 2012, when its first hybrid LMP1 car competed, thanks to its most efficient hybrid electric powertrain for motorsport. The TS050 HYBRID is allocated 35.1 kgs of fuel per session, which is enough for 11 laps of the 13.626- km road circuit.

The other LMP1 cars, which do not use hybrid electric technology and are allowed to be 45 kgs lighter than the TS050 HYBRIDs, will complete 10 laps per session from their fuel load. The exact fuel allocation has yet to be confirmed but it is certain to be significantly more than the TS050 HYBRIDs, giving the non-hybrid cars more power and performance but also necessitating longer and more frequent fuel stops.

At Spa, the first race for the new LMP1 regulations saw Toyota win by 2 laps, helped by significantly quicker pitstops than its competitors. But at the recent Le Mans test day, Rebellion Racing recorded a lap time more than 4 seconds faster than any non-hybrid LMP1 car has achieved previously in the WEC era, raising the prospect of an exciting and competitive Le Mans race which takes place on June 16/17 (the race starts at 3 pm in France).

The circuit has been modified slightly since last year’s race with upgraded safety measures contributing to a reduction of the official track length by 3 metres. That means Kamui’s 2017 pole position time of 3 minutes 14.791 seconds on the 13.629-km lay-out can never be beaten and joins Martin Brundle’s fastest-ever lap of the 13.605-km lay-out, set at the wheel of a TS020 in 1999, in the Le Mans record books.

The 2018-specification TS050 HYBRIDs have already completed 2,752 kms of the circuit, setting the fastest lap during the official test day recently, and the team aims to continue that strong reliability and performance throughout race week. The Le Mans week represents the true spirit and challenge of endurance racing, featuring a total of almost 35 hours of driving, starting on Wednesday, June 13 with a 4-hour practice session at 4 pm before 2 hours of qualifying which starts at 10 pm. Qualifying continues on Thursday with another two 120-minute sessions. The starting grid is decided by the fastest lap from any of the qualifying sessions, with Toyota ready to fight for its fourth pole position at Le Mans.

“It is always exciting to go to Le Mans and this year, we are particularly looking forward to the race. Following the big disappointments of 2016 and 2017 at Le Mans, we have prepared more thoroughly than ever before and our priority is to reach the chequered flag without trouble. But we know from the past that many things can happen at Le Mans and we will need to show our team spirit to overcome the many difficulties of this event,” said Hisatake Murata, President of Toyota GAZOO Racing.

“I am confident that our team is united and ready for this challenge and will never give up on our target; we will do everything we can to stand in the middle of the podium on Sunday afternoon. I hope we can give the fans a race to remember as well,” he added.

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[Chips Yap]

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