Toyota technical director ‘frustrated’ with missed opportunity

Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director Pascal Vasselon said he is “frustrated” by the series of issues that denied the Japanese manufacturer an elusive first victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The attrition-filled race saw two of Toyota’s three TS050 Hybrids retire before the halfway mark, with the No. 8 entry of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Mike Conway finishing ninth overall after a lengthy trip to the garage to replace its front motor generator unit and battery.

While having entered the weekend as pre-race favorites and sweeping the front row with Kamui Kobayashi’s new qualifying lap record, Vasselon said the defeat was an even more bitter pill to swallow considering both Porsche 919 Hybrids also faced reliability issues.

“It’s frustrating because we [had] three cars,” Vasselon told Sportscar365. “We have had only one reliability issue in all the races with the three cars.

“If we were beaten by a competitor who had perfect reliability we would say: ‘OK, they they were better,’ but they were not reliable. So it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating.”

The pole-sitting No. 7 Toyota of Kobayashi retired in the 10th hour with clutch failure, in what Vasselon said was triggered by a bizarre pit lane incident.

He said it was the “most amazing” problem they had during the race.

Kobayashi pitted for routine service while under the race’s second safety car period before going into the queue at pit exit, where Vasselon said he was signaled to re-enter the track by a fake marshal, believed to be a driver from another team.

“It’s amazing… Someone came to tell him, and we have it on video: ‘Go go go!’ And normally, our drivers are used to the human action dominate signs,” Vasselon explained.

“From our side, we told him stop because the safety car queue was coming, and it was not possible.

“There has been, as you can imagine, some confusion. Start, stop, start, stop.

“So he had done several restarts with the clutch and the combustion engine… and burned the clutch because he has been thrown into a situation which should not exist.”

Kobayashi ground to a halt moments later and was forced to retire the car at the Porsche Curves.

Vasselon attributed the loss of the No. 9 car of Nico Lapierre in the 11th hour to a collision with the No. 24 CEFC Manor TRS Racing Oreca 07 Gibson of Simon Trummer, which caused the left-rear tire puncture and subsequent fire.

“At the same time the tire destroyed the recovery system and the oil cooler over the engine, so at the same time we lost the engine and the gearbox,” he explained.

“We tried to come back in electric mode, and then we ran out of battery.”

The No. 8 car, meanwhile, lost nearly two hours replacing the front MGU, the same issue to hit the eventual race-winning No. 2 Porsche, which completed its repair in half the time of the Toyota.

Vasselon explained that its electric motor is “extremely difficult” to replace and had never been an issue in the past, while team director Rob Leupen explained they elected to also change the battery out of precaution.

Leupen admitted they “maybe wouldn’t have finished” the race had they not replaced the battery, which he said cost them between 30-45 additional minutes in the garage.

“The front motor is so reliable that we never need to change it,” Vasselon said. “It’s something we don’t do. It’s very integral and it’s not straightforward.”

Conway, who was denied a likely victory after his No. 7 car topped the time charts all week, said he was surprised by the level of attrition.

It resulted in two LMP2 cars finishing on the overall podium and the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson lead outright for nearly two hours, a first in the race’s history.

“It’s kind of crazy really how the whole race panned out,” Conway told Sportscar365.

“I mean when you saw the No. 2 Porsche go down 17 laps you’d have thought at that point that they’re out of this one. They were just dropping down the leader board.

“That’s what this bloody race is like. It’s not over until it’s over.

“We had cars to win the race in terms of speed, but a bit of a reliability and a bit of an unlucky side with Nico in traffic and stuff, and there you have it. It can happen so quick.”

Toyota not only leaves Le Mans without winning trophies yet again, but also having lost the lead in both the Manufacturers and Drivers’ World Championships to Porsche.

Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber and Timo Bernhard have leapfrogged to the lead, courtesy of the double points-scoring round, and the Toyota trio only scoring points for ninth place due to a change in the regulations for 2017.

Leupen said the only thing they can do is regroup for the next round.

“We say it’s now Le Mans is over, we have done hard work for it, but we missed it, so we go to the Nürburgring and try to beat Porsche there,” he said.

“We have a World Championship to win and definitely already next year Le Mans is in the back of our heads.”