It took Toyota 20 attempts to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But since getting its hands on the trophy for the first time 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 go up against the French sports-car brand Alpine, which is owned by Renault, and the American boutique sports-car company Glickenhaus in the Le Mans Hypercar class to fight for overall victory starting on Saturday. Neither has won Le Mans before, making the challenge of stopping Toyota difficult.
“Toyota are so strong,” said Philippe Sinault, team principal of Alpine. “We know that it’s David versus Goliath.”
But the signs heading to Le Mans suggest Toyota may face tougher competition this year. In March, Alpine won the opening race of the World Endurance Championship at Sebring in Florida, before Glickenhaus scored pole position at Spa in Belgium. Although Toyota won the Spa race, the team came away feeling that its advantage had shrunk since last year’s Le Mans.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re on the back foot,” said Mike Conway, one of the drivers who won Le Mans for Toyota last year. “It’s been harder, that’s for sure. But I guess that’s what we want to see, everything a lot closer.
“As you saw in the last couple of years, Alpine have been pretty bulletproof in terms of reliability. Glickenhaus have been pretty good. So, we’ve got our work cut out.”
Rob Leupen, the team director of Toyota, said the “smallest mistake” would prove costly this year and that no team could afford to lose time repairing their cars during the race.
“The cars are close,” he said. “Nobody has a real excess of performance in comparison to the others, so reliability and team operations are key, and I think here, we are experienced to take that challenge.”
To encourage close competition among the leading cars in the Hypercar class, the Le Mans organizers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, use a system called Balance of Performance, known as B.O.P., to prevent teams from having a big advantage. The B.O.P. can adjust horsepower output or revise the speed from which hybrid power can be used. Last year for Toyota, this was 75 m.p.h., but increased to 120 m.p.h. at the start of the season, reducing its advantage over the nonhybrid Alpine and Glickenhaus cars.
“You don’t unfold the full potential of each car,” Leupen said. “You keep it within the ballpark of the Balance of Performance in order to give everybody an equal chance.”
Jim Glickenhaus, owner of his eponymous 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’m not coming back if I don’t have a fair B.O.P., and in fairness to them, they are really working to get a fair B.O.P.,” said Glickenhaus, who pointed out the 0.3 second gap covering his team, Toyota and Alpine in qualifying at Spa.
“We feel very strong about Le Mans this year, and if they keep tweaking the B.O.P., I think we could win Le Mans. Am I saying we will? No, of course not. But we could.”
Luis Felipe Derani of Brazil said it was “amazing how much the Glickenhaus team has improved and pushed forward” since he finished fourth at Le Mans with the team last year.
“At Spa, you saw we were right there with them, apart from the very end when we made a strategy mistake, which took away our chance to fight with Toyota,” Derani said. “It’s a very nice challenge to have, when you see what such a small group of people can achieve when they work really, really hard against a giant like Toyota.”
Glickenhaus focuses on building a cheaper, nonhybrid car that still has “an even chance to win and is less complex.” Glickenhaus said he was heartened by the chance to even get in the fight to win Le Mans against a global manufacturer.
“The idea that you even say Glickenhaus and Toyota in the same sentence is a joke,” he said. “We are second in the drivers’ championship in the W.E.C. ahead of Toyota. Think about that.”
Alpine is counting on home support as it tries to become the first French team to win Le Mans since Peugeot in 2009. The Alpine drivers, André Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxivière, lead the championship. Sinault said they remained outsiders against Toyota, but felt confident there was “something to play for” at Le Mans.
“It will be fantastic to win at Le Mans with Alpine, a French brand with French spirit,” said Sinault. “But we try to stay out of this thinking. We know that we have a lot of pressure.”
Leupen was reluctant to agree with the David vs. Goliath comparison with Toyota’s rivals. “You need to have all respect for them, and you need not to diminish them,” he said. “We have to be careful because Alpine and Glickenhaus are two very strong competitors looking at us.”
If it can win the race, Toyota would become only 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 operating with each other, I think we should be in a very good position to show good performance.”
The challenge of running a car for 24 hours reliably makes Le Mans one of the toughest races in motorsport, regardless of the competition. Toyota almost had to retire both of its cars in last year’s race because of a fuel pressure issue, while in 2016 it lost the race to Porsche when leading comfortably after its car suffered a sudden loss of power on the final lap.
“The end result does not depend solely on pure performance, especially at Le Mans,” said Pierre Fillon, the president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. “It’s a long, challenging race for drivers and machines. Every team knows it’s impossible to predict the outcome.
“Surprises occur every year, in all classes, even on the last lap. Alpine and Glickenhaus have been working particularly hard in recent months, and I’m convinced they’ll put on a great show.”
An added incentive for the drivers and teams will be the return of full grandstands after two years racing with Covid-19 restrictions in place. The race has returned to its usual June dates, after it was held in September 2020 and August 2021.
Conway said it felt “strange” being on the podium last year to lift the trophy without the “sea of people” that usually invaded the track after the checkered flag to celebrate the winners. “It definitely didn’t feel the same,” he said. “We missed the fans over the last couple of years. It should be a full house, and I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
Fillon said the organizers had been “waiting for this moment for far too long” to welcome back a capacity crowd of 250,000 after being limited to 50,000 last year.
“I’m obviously thrilled that we’ll have full grandstands again and will be able to enjoy that special 24 Hours of Le Mans atmosphere,” Fillon said. “This event is not the same without the tens of thousands of fans at the racetrack, and we’ve lined up plenty of activities to celebrate their return.
“Endurance racing is an approachable sport where the hordes of fans can get up close, and that is something we must strive to keep alive.”