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The 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship is underway, but the real battle is still years away.
It’s a unique year at the Le Mans 24 Hours. With the introduction of the LMDh class in 2023, the race is expected to be the most competitive since at least the highest days of Group C in the 1980s. Next year, too, there will be a fight between Toyota and early hypercar contender Peugeot. But in 2021, Toyota will be the only factory racing program at the entire top level of sports car racing. Their only opponents are a grandfather’s LMP1 car bought by Renault’s Alpine division and a planned, custom-built hypercar challenged by boutique manufacturer Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus. In other words, anything but a win at Le Mans would be a real shock.
It would also be a disaster for the ACO, the group that organizes the 24-hour classic. Every Le Mans win since 1976 has been claimed by a major manufacturer, and one road car manufacturer has won all but four of the 88 races. This is an unrivaled run and the most important reason why Le Mans is still the largest racing award in the world for car manufacturers.
By comparison: The two youngest Formula 1 world champions before the Mercedes era are an energy drink. Manufacturers and a private team that existed for a full season. Honda and Chevrolet supply unique engines for Indianapolis 500 entries, but every race since 2005 has been run on a Dallara chassis. Both Sebring and Daytona have been won by customer cars in the LMP2 and DP categories over the past decade. The number of brands that claim both engine and chassis construction at Le Mans is unmatched. If Toyota doesn’t win this year, the weight of each successive win will be significantly diluted.
In the past this has not been a problem. Toyota has been in this position since 2018, the year Porsche left LMP1. For three consecutive years, their TS050s have easily taken to victories with no significant concerns about reliability or pace. But the introduction of hypercar regulations means the sport is trying something new, and the first official sessions of hypercar racing this weekend have made some concerned that Toyota must be very worried.
The GR010 may seem like a LMP1 car look like, but the changes are radical. The first factory LMH competitor works with a completely different balance between power, hybrid support and downforce. The result is a slower, less stable car that seems unprepared to compete on a track with the massive LMP2 class that makes so much of the FIA World Endurance Championship grid. Both in the pre-season tests last weekend and in training this weekend, the Toyotas were often in the middle of a tight LMP2 field that, despite the presumably massive development costs of the GR010, was surprisingly close to the much cheaper cars of private drivers. </ The good news for Toyota is that they seem to have found some pace, either by adding more track time or simply by throwing the proverbial sandbags. The GR010s closed the first row in qualifying after taking first and second places in the last practice session at the weekend. The bad news is that the gap is pretty close, with the fastest Toyota holding just a second and a half above an LMP2 class that was expected to be significantly slower on a track like Spa. Worse still, Alpine grandfather's LMP1 car, limited to LMH standards by the ACO, actually qualified for LMP2 behind the market leader.
The worst may yet come as reliability is not a guarantee. Notes from factory driver Mike Conway in a conversation with Top Gear seem to suggest that the GR010 was less than bulletproof when tested, and any problem warranting a trip to the garage could destroy the Toyota’s speed advantage completely.
Tomorrow morning Toyota will start the first race for a Le Mans hypercar factory. Any outcome other than a win will be of great importance to the many factories considering future entry into Hypercar and LMDh. With Peugeot, Ferrari, Audi, Porsche and Acura waiting to join and many more are expected, Toyota’s goal for the season is to defend the weight of the works sports car race at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
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