Stung by failure within sight of victory at Le Mans in 2016, Toyota is redoubling its efforts this year

It was a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster: there were just four minutes of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours remaining and Toyota looked to have the race victory in the bag – until the unthinkable happened.

After 23 hours and 56 minutes of reliable running, the failure of a simple intercooler pipe forced the leading TS050 Hybrid to stop on the start/finish straight, in full sight of the grandstands, just as the car had embarked on its final lap.

Toyota has entered a total of 44 cars at Le Mans since 1985, but has never won. Agonisingly, 2016 was the third time the Japanese manufacturer has had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

In 1994, a weld in the leading 94C-V’s gearbox linkage failed with only 90 minutes to go. Five years later, a tyre blowout delayed its fastest GT-One with less than an hour remaining, ending any hopes of the car chasing down the BMW that went on to win the race.

Last year’s failure, which handed victory to Porsche, was particularly galling for the three drivers of the leading Toyota: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson. The latter says: “As far as we were concerned, we’d won the Le Mans 24 Hours. I’d raced the best sports car race of my career – that’s why it hurt even more.

“People say you make your own luck and that’s nonsense, especially in racing. Clearly life’s not fair. If the car fails on you, it’s bad luck that’s out of your control.”

Davidson, who has nine Le Mans starts under his belt, has every right to feel harshly treated by the world’s most famous endurance race. In 2010, the Briton – then driving for Peugeot – lost out on the top spot, despite blistering pace in the event’s final hour, due to an engine failure for the number one 908 HDi FAP.

Then in 2012, Davidson’s first Le Mans with Toyota nearly ended his career when he was clipped by a Ferrari 458 at 200mph, just before the entry to Mulsanne Corner. It sent his TS030 Hybrid flying through the air and into the barriers. The impact broke his back.

“Le Mans has been a bitch to me,” he says. “You go through years of torture for the race with a carrot dangled in front of your face all the time, and it keeps getting pulled away at the last second.

“It just feels like a Le Mans win is never going to happen. I was so desperate to win it, but something always gets in the way.”

Toyota’s preparations for this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours are in full swing. The manufacturer is determined not to let victory escape again. This weekend’s World Endurance Championship opener at Silverstone will offer the first indication as to the raw pace of the revised TS050 Hybrid compared to the latest evolution of Porsche’s 919 Hybrid, but the 2017- spec Toyota has recorded more than 18,000 miles of testing, including four 30-hour endurance runs.

All cars competing in the LMP1 class have undergone significant changes for 2017, with rule tweaks forcing revisions to the aerodynamics. On top of this, Toyota’s engine, turbocharger, motor generator units and battery are also revised, and the team is confident it has ironed out any possibility of a repeat failure as effectively as it can.

The team’s technical chief, Pascal Vasselon, says: “The only item which is not changed [on the car] is the monocoque. As well as big aerodynamic changes, we have optimised each area for performance and weight. What happened at Le Mans last year was painful, so we have given extra attention to quality management. Zero risk doesn’t exist so we operate according to a given level of risk, which this year we have reduced.”

Davidson – who will again share a car at Le Mans with Buemi and Nakajima – says he doesn’t feel any additional pressure in light of last year’s last-minute failure: “I approach Le Mans like a fun event, like a charity go-kart race. Even last year, before the end, I was having great fun, the car felt good and I was under no pressure.”

Audi’s exit from the WEC means it’s a two-horse race between Porsche and Toyota. Davidson doesn’t see that making Toyota’s job any easier, “because Porsche has been the team to beat for two seasons.”

Le Mans, though, is unpredictable, and perhaps Toyota just needs some old fashioned good luck on its side.

Read more: 

McLaren and Fernando Alonso to race in 2017 Indy 500

Ford GT gallery: Ford GT’s 2017 WEC effort begins

Peugeot considers Le Mans return

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