After a challenging season, highlighted by its heartbreak in Le Mans, Toyota is hoping for improved pace and fortunes heading into its all-important home race this weekend at Fuji.
The Japanese manufacturer, which has been winless in FIA World Endurance Championship competition for nearly two years, has made up significant ground this season with its all-new TS050 Hybrid, but yet unable to deliver on a much-needed victory.
The No. 6 entry of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stephane Sarrazin, however, are coming off their fourth podium in six races in last month’s round at Circuit of The Americas.
“We had a strong race, especially at the end, the last three hours,” Sarrazin told Sportscar365.
“When it’s a green track, we lack downforce. So we’re slower than the opposition. But the track came to us and we went quicker and quicker, which was great.
“COTA was a very strong result for us. Fuji is our home race. We have to push even more than anywhere. Normally we’re fast there and it suits our car.
“We are really motivated and really happy and we will keep on pushing.”
Sarrazin, Conway and Kobayashi sit third in the Drivers’ World Championship with three rounds to go, after what’s been a consistent run for the trio this year.
The same couldn’t be said for the sister No. 5 car of Kazuki Nakajima and 2013 World Champions Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi, which came less than five minutes away from victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Engine failure dashed their hopes in the French endurance classic, the only race so far this season that’s seen the Toyotas on top form and legitimately in the mix for the win.
“At Le Mans, with the low downforce package, our car was flying,” Sarrazin said. “With the high downforce package, it’s more difficult but we are doing a very good job with our engineers.
“We’ve been setting up the car well and it’s been optimized. The team has also been very good on strategy.”
Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director Pascal Vasselon admits one of their shortfalls has been outright pace, particularly with its high-downforce aero package, which is locked in for the remainder of the season.
“It’s true that our race pace is always better than the practice and qualifying pace. It’s happened at all of the races,” Vasselon told Sportscar365. “The problem is that it’s still not quick enough.
“Strategy wise, we didn’t make any mistakes. That’s what helped us come back to the front when the races progress.
“But we are still missing some raw pace to really be in front.”
Vasselon is not expecting any miracles this weekend, although the highly technical 16-turn, 2.835-mile circuit is expected to better suit its TS050 Hybrids.
“There’s nothing more for Fuji except that Fuji should be better in our window in terms of the aero package. This is the only change we can expect,” he said.
“We are not so extremely far away but still not quick enough.”
With Toyota boasting two Japanese drivers in Kobayashi and Nakajima for the first time this year, there will no doubt be extra attention and pressure to perform.
Sarrazin, meanwhile, remains hopeful of a breakthrough win this year, after what’s been an unpredictable season with reliability issues having struck all three LMP1 manufacturers.
“It’s never finished; anything can happen,” he said.
“There’s still a few races to go, each six hours. You can have a problem. You never know. We need to give our maximum to have no regrets.”