Vasselon “Frustrated” With Toyota’s Missed Opportunity

Photo: Vision Sport Agency

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.”

James Newbold contributed to this report

15 Comments

  1. Helgi

    June 18, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    “fake marshal” WAT?!

  2. Susafan

    June 18, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    I know a team based in Germany that would make Toyota a winner…

  3. angel S

    June 18, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    Personally Team Toyota is exhausting these cars to a point of being unreliable, case in point qualifying and last year probably ran engines too lean. I know having a competitor like Porsche requires exemplary performance, but not over tuning.

  4. GTurner38

    June 18, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    A driver came out, gave a thumbs up, and immediately went back to the garage. There was no “Go, go, go.”

    • CookieMonsterFL

      June 18, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      You can COMPLETELY missread a driver suited up with a similar shade of colour to that of a marshal, and as they too react via pretty wide hand queues (see starts of all FP’s and Q’s sessions to see examples of them directing) I can absolutely see how someone running up like that motioning a finger can be seen as saying “Go”. I can see where Kamui should have definitely double checked but in the heat of the moment he reacted to a situation that should have never occurred.

  5. Rory

    June 18, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Driver was Capilliare of Algarve Pro, I can see why Toyota and Kobayashi thought it was a Marshal with their teams Orange overalls, why he did what he did I don’t know, did the Toyota pull out unsafely in front of him coming out of it’s pit stop? was he saying well done on leading the race? he’s got no reason to go over towards that car and give a thumbs up only he knows why he did it

  6. John

    June 18, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    I saw the pit lane “release” by the driver, and they made a joke about it on the broadcast. Hard to say what happened, but most of the time, there was a track marshal, obviously dressed as a marshal, positioned there with the flag and SC sign blocking the exit during the SC periods.

    Bizarre indeed, but a clutch (or say, starter motor) that can’t handle a 24 hr endurance race isn’t anybody’s responsibility but the team’s.

    Similar reliability/luck struck both teams, and the Porsche TEAM proved to be better. I didn’t catch the early part of the race broadcast, but I did during the #8’s repair, and at times, the crew seemed almost nonchalant about it, perhaps knowing that the #7 was leading and the #9 was still on track.

    Not quite like Audi and Joest’s expertly planned and executed swaps.

    Events like these test not just the machinery, but the planning and the people.

    Maybe that’s why, despite the issues, Porsche won this race, and part of why they and Audi have won it so many times, and Toyota have yet to win.

    Last year was indeed a heartbreaker, but 2017 was different.

    • GR88

      June 18, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      Toyota needed to change the battery, not just the front recovery system.

    • CookieMonsterFL

      June 18, 2017 at 7:50 pm

      quoted from another source:

      > “In the german article, it says that the clutch is designed to only engage at at least 80 kph after accelerating with the electric engine, and not while the car is standing with the combustion engine running. Normally, they use the electric motor to accelerate out of the pits and then engage the clutch to use the combustion engine when the car left the pit.
      Because the car had to start several times and the combustion engine was already running because he left the pits early, the clutch was engaged more often at speeds it isn’t designed for while running the combustion engine and subsequently broke.”

      • John

        June 19, 2017 at 6:29 am

        That makes sense.

        I wonder if there will be more to come from this story from the wannabe marshal in question?

        Odd things can happen at 2 or 3AM!

  7. not brad kettler

    June 18, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    It should be mentioned when talking about the high attrition rates, that this race actually had a record high number of finishers. It is just a high attrition race…for the (small to start with) LMP1 class.

    Did Lapierre cause the issue with the ByKolles, or did Webb just misjudge, hit the bollard, and end the day on the first lap for the team?

    • Pierce

      June 18, 2017 at 9:31 pm

      ByKolles ran wide on their own. They were well up the road in front of the #9

  8. Mathew

    June 19, 2017 at 12:04 am

    I understand the frustration and in no way am i wholly blaming the Toyota outfit however i feel the cars systems should be set up in a way which makes it impossible for this issue to occur. Or if the ECU cant do it then the drivers should have a procedure for stopping from a stand still every time.

    I cant see any reason why it would have been an issue to take off on electric power as they do from the pit box any time they come to a stand still.

  9. Marco

    June 19, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Isn’t there a Pit-Exit light. Either Green or Red

  10. David

    June 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    I would think they would feel worse if Porsche was better than them. This shows them both at fault for choosing speed over reliability. Maybe they can come together for a solution.

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