Since 2018, the five-consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans victories scored by Toyota Gazoo Racing have been a source of debate within the world of endurance racing.
Its five wins around the Circuit de la Sarthe make the Japanese giant one of the most successful manufacturers in the history of what many consider to be the world’s greatest endurance race. However, Toyota’s detractors would say that its half-decade run of success has been largely down to lack of serious competition… at least on paper.
At the end of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship season, Audi abruptly withdrew from the sport as a result of its involvement in the Dieselgate scandal. Come the end of the following season, Porsche - who has since returned to the WEC for 2023 and beyond - had also announced its departure to focus on its Formula e efforts from 2018 onwards.
“I think we, Toyota, are the favourites as a team going into Le Mans this year”
The departure of the two German powerhouses would go on to leave Toyota with SMP Racing, Rebellion Racing, Alpine, and then Glickenhaus as its main source of competition. All worthy competitors, yet ultimately lacking the financial and engineering capacity that comes with being the second-largest carmaker in the world.
Yet since the 2023 WEC season opener in Sebring back in March, there have been glimmers of a change in scenery on an otherwise Toyota-dominated landscape. By allowing manufacturers from IMSA’s LMDh prototypes to compete in the WEC’s top-tier ‘Hypercar’ category, the WEC’s organisers have succeeded in attracting more manufacturers than ever in recent years to the sport.
In the run up to this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was announced that Ferrari, Porsche, Cadillac, Peugeot, and Vanwall will all be joining Toyota and Glickenhaus to compete for what will rank as a very special LM24 victory. After all, the 2023 race will mark 100 years since the inaugural event was won by French duo, André Lagache and René Leonard in their Chenard Walker SA.
The No. 50 Maranello car took pole at Sebring, and at the Six Hours of Spa, the No. 51 Ferrari boasted an advantage of between two-to-four tenths of a second over the Toyota for the final four hours of the race.
Despite the Scuderia’s evident speed, Brendon Hartley, a triple WEC title winner, believes it’s Toyota - his current employer - who remains the favourite to win this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.
Of course, you could suggest that Hartley is paying PR lip service to his paymasters. But before you roll your eyes, hear the easy-going New Zealander out.
After all, let’s not forget that the 33-year-old has won Le Mans outright three times, and on current form, could quite possibly make it four when the chequered flag drops after 24 hours of racing on Sunday, June 11.
“More often than not, your biggest rival at Le Mans - or at least it’s been like this since I joined Toyota in 2019 - will be your sister car”
Hartley opened his Le Mans victory account in 2017 whilst part of Porsche’s LMP1 programme. He then notched up a further two wins with Toyota in 2020 and 2022.
If, then, there is something that the affable Kiwi knows how to do properly with a racing car, it’s winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Honestly, I think we, Toyota, are the favourites as a team going into Le Mans this year, and trust me, it doesn’t feel nice saying that because it comes across as a bit smug and I really don’t want it to sound like that!” He tells Dyler.com. “What I mean, is that we’ve won each of the three races we’ve already had in WEC this year, but we’ve not always been the fastest out there.
“However, we are extremely well-optimised when it comes to strategy, engineering, and drivers, though. These are the things that often make the difference at a race like Le Mans.”
And without using Russian propagandist levels of mental gymnastics, it’s impossible to disagree with Hartley’s statement. Toyota introduced its GR010 for 2021, the season which marked the arrival of the Hypercar era, and it has since undergone two significant evolutions over the last two seasons.
For Le Mans 2023, Hartley is once again paired in the No. 8 car with Sebastién Buemi and Ryō Hirakawa with whom he took honours last year. The sister No. 7 is shared between Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway, and José María López who won the event in 2021.
To add some further context to Hartley’s comment about “optimisation,” whilst the Porsche 963 and Ferrari 499P were still undergoing their rigorous testing programmes last year, Toyota was romping to another WEC title in an on-track, racing environment, albeit with varying levels of competition.
“When it comes to Le Mans, it’s essentially 12 months worth of work for one race, which adds a certain amount of pressure and stress,” Hartley explains. “The whole week is a rollercoaster of emotions, and there’s a huge amount of fans out there.
“I’ve been told there’s around 250,000 fans coming for the centenary this year! As a driver, you always want to do your best for them, too, because it’s not exactly a cheap day out.
“If you want to know what I listen to on a race weekend, it’s generally something a bit heavier like Clutch, Deftones, or Tool - I’d generally not go for something like Crowded House!”
“Anyway, more often than not, your biggest rival at Le Mans - or at least it’s been like this since I joined Toyota in 2019 - will be your sister car. They have the same machinery as you, so it’s largely about maximising the smaller details that you won’t necessarily see on the surface.
“One other thing I’ve also noticed since being here, is that the opposite of the garage has always been very happy for the other when they have won a race, Le Mans or not.
“As a team, all of us drivers have plenty of respect for each other - we go for dinner together and stuff, and we always have some good laughs. During the race weekend, maybe we separate ourselves a little more than normal, but that’s because we want to get the best out of ourselves.
“Ultimately then, I’d say that the No. 7 Toyota is our biggest rival at Le Mans this year. I’m really sorry I don’t have anything juicier or more interesting to say about that, to be honest!”
In terms of his personal race preparation, Hartley goes on to reveal that listening to music plays a key role in things, especially during qualifying. Since 2020, he has - for the most part - been the No. 8 car’s designated qualifier at Le Mans.
Despite being a proud New Zealander, you’ll not be finding any Crowded house on Hartley’s race weekend playlist.
“If you want to know what I listen to on a race weekend, it’s generally something a bit heavier like Clutch, Deftones, or Tool,” Hartley reveals. “I’d generally not go for something like Crowded House, but their hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a Kiwi classic and it has its time and place at parties!
“As a younger fella, I’d experiment with all sorts of ways to tackle qualifying and the race. Some of them really didn’t work, and some did,” he continues. “With experience comes discovering an approach that works for you, and music was something that did exactly that for me.
“Even when I was racing in Formula 1, I never experienced an atmosphere like the one you get from standing on the grid at Le Mans!”
“I tend to listen to some music for about 30 minutes ahead of qualifying to get myself psyched up, because you pretty much have one opportunity - or one lap - to get things right.
“Before the race, though, I tend to be a bit more relaxed and take a different approach. I now understand how to get myself in the right frame of mind to reach that state of flow that people in sports or anything that requires a lot of concentration often refer to and aspire to achieve.
“I’ve learned over the years that it’s a bit silly to get too worked up and go out attacking from the first lap like your life depends on it during the race. The best way to approach these things is to ease yourself in over three or four laps.”
On paper, then, things look good for Hartley to score a fourth Le Mans victory in two Sundays’ time. Should he succeed, the unassuming Kiwi who insists he’s “not famous” would rank fourth alongside the likes of Henri Pescarolo, Yannick Dalmas, and Toyota team-mate Buemi on all-time Le Mans winners’ list.
He would also become the first New Zealander in history to become a quadruple winner of the LM24, and the first New Zealander to do so with two different car manufacturers.
“To take a Le Mans victory for the fourth time would be incredible, but whether it’s your first or fourth, winning one of the biggest races on earth always feels amazing,” Hartley concludes. “Like I already said, so much effort goes into this one race, so given how taxing it is mentally, everyone is emotional whether you win or lose.
“But to win the centenary knowing that you’re competing against some of the biggest returning names in Le Mans history such as Ferrari, Porsche, and Peugeot… I think that would make this one a bit more special, I think.
“Even when I was racing in Formula 1, I never experienced an atmosphere like the one you get from standing on the grid at Le Mans. In fact, I’ve never had goosebumps like it, mate!”
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