Toy­ota aim to end Le Mans drought

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

TOY­OTA were favourites to win Le Mans even be­fore Ka­mui Kobayashi (pic­tured) smashed the lap record in qual­i­fy­ing, but they can take noth­ing for granted when the 24 Hours sports car race starts to­day.

The Cir­cuit de la Sarthe, host­ing the 85th edi­tion of the French clas­sic, has a his­tory of heart­break and five-time run­ners-up Toy­ota know all about that.

Only one Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer has ever won Le Mans – Mazda in 1991 with a ro­tary-en­gined car. Toy­ota had looked like end­ing that last year un­til some last-lap drama handed the race to Porsche.

Kazuki Naka­jima had been head­ing for the che­quered flag when he re­ported a prob­lem with five min­utes re­main­ing. The Ja­panese slowed, com­ing to a halt as Porsche cel­e­brated their 18th vic­tory.

Naka­jima, who put Toy­ota on pole in 2014 only to re­tire while lead­ing in a race won by Audi, is back on the front row with a score to set­tle af­ter qual­i­fy­ing the num­ber eight Toy­ota along­side pole-sit­ter Kobayashi in the num­ber seven car. On Thurs­day the fastest lap by Kobayashi

was more than two sec­onds quicker than the pre­vi­ous record and at an av­er­age speed of 251.9km/h.

Toy­ota had al­ready put down a marker in pre­race test­ing ear­lier in June, when their cars filled the top three places, and they are lead­ing the FIA world en­durance cham­pi­onship af­ter two wins in two rounds. “Af­ter the test it is dif­fi­cult to say that we are not favourites,” Toy­ota tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Pas­cal Vas­selon said re­cently. “That is what we have been work­ing for.”

Hav­ing al­ready de­stroyed the lap record, and with fine weather pre­dicted all week­end, Toy­ota could also break Audi’s 2010 record for the long­est dis­tance cov­ered in 24 hours if all goes to plan.

“The record will prob­a­bly be bro­ken be­cause back then our car was run­ning five to six sec­onds slower than to­day’s cars,” French driver and 2010 win­ner Ro­main Du­mas told the www.le­ web­site.

With Audi pulling out af­ter last year’s race, Porsche are Toy­ota’s only ri­vals for over­all vic­tory and they have their two cars on the sec­ond row in third and fourth places as they chase a third straight win.

Porsche also have five pre­vi­ous win­ners in their two crews with New Zealan­der Bren­don Hart­ley the odd man out – although he did win the world en­durance cham­pi­onship in 2015.

Toy­ota’s third car qual­i­fied fifth with the only other en­try in the top LMP1 cat­e­gory, the pri­vately-run ByKolles team’s sole en­try, lin­ing up sixth.

Oth­ers in the 60-car field in­clude Brazil­ian for­mer F1 driver Rubens Bar­richello, mak­ing his de­but in a Dal­lara LMP2 car at the age of 45, and Indy Car com­pa­triot Tony Kanaan, fill­ing in for the in­jured Se­bastien Bour­dais in a Ford GT. – Reuters

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