Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director Pascal Vasselon believes the key to victory at Le Mans is not beating the competition but the race itself.
The Japanese manufacturer heads into next weekend’s enduro seeking an elusive first win after losing near-certain victories in three of the last four years due to incidents, mechanical issues and unlucky breaks.
However, with Toyota as the lone-remaining LMP1 hybrid, amid the exits of Audi and Porsche, pundits have questioned the acceptance of a Le Mans victory while only up against non-hybrid privateers that have been artificially brought closer to the Toyota TS050 Hybrids.
When asked by Sportscar365 if victory in this year’s race would be less meaningful in light of no factory competition, Vasselon insisted it doesn’t make the challenge any easier.
“Not really,” he said. “In fact, in the past four years, three times we were the logical winner. In 2014 we had the fastest car, in 2016 it was close but in the end we were the fastest.
“Last year we were clearly the fastest. So, it is not a matter of being able to beat the opposition.
“It is a matter of being able to beat Le Mans. So still it is our challenge.
“In terms of performance, we have already been able to beat our competition at Le Mans. What we did not beat is the 24 hours. So our challenge is still there, it’s still intact. It’s Toyota vs. Le Mans.”
Kazuki Nakajima, who came less than ten minutes away from delivering Toyota victory in 2016, believes a ‘win is a win’ no matter the number of cars or manufacturers in the class.
While having featured two, and oftentimes three manufacturers since 2014, Audi had dominated the LMP900 ranks in the early-to-mid 2000s, regularly as the lone factory team prior to Peugeot’s arrival in 2007.
“We have been trying hard to win this race over the last 30 years, if you include the previous projects,” Nakajima told Sportscar365. “We have been fighting hard and we know what counts to win this.
“Even if there’s no other manufacturer around us… If we can win this race without any mistakes or any technical failures, I think it means enough for us.
“At the end of the day, after the race if we can feel that we have done everything we could do, then I think that will be enough.
“I think some of the fans or media would think it means less not having the other manufacturers there, but on our side, I don’t think it would change much.”
Vasselon said they’re banking on reliability of the cars and have even simulated parts failures and accidents in pre-season testing, in an effort to be prepared for the unexpected.
“We have already analyzed the past,” he said. “We have taken any kind of counter measure related to what has happened in the past. Now, it’s a new year.”
“Positive Pressure” in Toyota’s Direction
While Toyota’s past failures have added to the pressure within the organization, Vasselon had described it as ‘positive pressure’ heading into race week.
“I think there is, of course, pressure as usual when you have the target to win,” he said.
“Le Mans brings you a kind of general motivation. You come to Le Mans and there is something happening, and the motivation is there.
“Pressure tends to be positive when you arrive at Le Mans.
“This is the feeling of the team at the moment. Yes, there is pressure, but when you arrive in Le Mans you feel it in a positive way.”
Daniel Lloyd contribute to this report