After claiming pole position and delivering a dominant performance through the first half of the 2020 Le Mans 24 hours, victory slipped away from Mike Conway and the #7 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing crew as a result of an exhaust manifold issue.
Delayed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the 88th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was rescheduled to September and became the penultimate round of the 2019-20 World Endurance Championship.
FREE PRACTICE + QUALIFYING
Running to a revised and condensed timetable, the bulk of Free Practice plus the opening qualifying session was moved to Thursday.
A positive and successful collection of practice sessions saw Mike, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López build up speed and confidence in the #7 TS050 Hybrid and enter qualifying firmly in the hunt for pole position.
Up to speed for the early evening qualifying session, the team were immediately on the pace with fresh tyres and low fuel allowing Kamui to set the fastest time of the session with a 3:17.089.
“It felt really good to be back on track; it's been a while since we've been here. Straight away I felt at home and we took over from where we left off last year in terms of our feeling with the car. We did a lot of aerodynamic tests to make sure we are in the right window and we tried to improve the car balance. It felt pretty good but of course it can get better; we tried to maximise our learning and get ready for Saturday. Good job from Kamui in qualifying to take first place, but the race is our only focus.”
New for 2020, the first-ever Hyperpole session saw the six fastest class-entrants from qualifying take part in a 30-minute shootout to decide the final order for the grid on Saturday.
Kamui was elected to take charge of the session and quickly set about delivering a lap time that would take the #7 TS050 Hybrid to the top of the standings. An initial run to a 3:15.920 was usurped by the #1 Rebellion Racing before Kamui returned fire with a 3:15.267 to seal the team its second pole position in two years.
For the second year in a row, Mike took the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and immediately began to signal his intent. Untroubled at the head of field, Mike began to pull out a gap lap-by-lap and, by the end of the first hour of racing, had bridged a 55-second lead to the #1 Rebellion Racing car in second place.
Owing to his exceptional pace and an unscheduled pitstop for the sister car, the #7 retained the lead throughout the following fuel stops and Mike handed the car over to Kamui just before the three-hour mark.
“My first stint went pretty well right from the start. I was side by side with the #1 Rebellion going into turn one; we both kept it clean so it was very fair. I stayed in front although I could see the Rebellion was quick early on, so I pushed to pull a gap. In the middle of my stint the car balance was a bit difficult but it improved again towards the end. So we have been chasing the balance a little as the track conditions and temperatures evolved.”
Kamui battled with slow zones and yellow flags to maintain the gap Mike had built up before José assumed control of the car shortly before the clock struck six hours of race time.
An untimely safety car following a heavy accident for a GT entrant meant the #7 lost the lead to the sister TS050 Hybrid. Requiring a pitstop to take on more fuel, José found himself held at the end of the pitlane for more than two minutes and subsequently saw the 90-second lead the team had built up to the #8 car wiped out.
Setting about regaining lost ground, José navigated his way through traffic and began to claw back some of the time lost during the pitstop. He then retook the lead of the race as the #8 pitted for repairs and maintenance.
With the sister car still in the pitlane, José took a one-lap lead despite a series of slow zones and another full safety car period during the eighth hour of the race.
Mike then stepped back into the car for his second stint of the race and continued untroubled to take the team up to the halfway mark.
With 12 hours passed, Kamui continued the team’s efforts into the night but his charge was abruptly halted when the team reported an exhaust manifold issue. After a slow lap, the problem brought the car into the pits where repairs cost the team half an hour of running, wiping out their lead and leaving them in fourth place - behind the sister Toyota and the two Rebellion Racing entries.
Re-entering the race seven laps down, the team began the task of regaining the lost time. Sitting four laps behind the #3 Rebellion in third place, the team had also picked up damage to the floor - further hampering their pace and left them faced with a mammoth task to overhaul the deficit and secure a podium.
Nevertheless, Mike and the team kept chipping away at the gap for the next seven hours and positioned themselves nicely to capitalise on late drama for the #3 Rebellion. With José in the car to the end of the race, he leapfrogged the #3 in the final hour and eventually took the chequered flag in third place.
The result gave the team their third podium finish in as many years at the legendary race - following two second-place finishes in 2018 and 2019.
“Le Mans hasn't been the kindest to us over the years. We are happy for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing to earn its third win in succession but on our side of the garage it feels as if another win got away from us. We are sad about that, also because it changes the World Championship situation massively. This means two big hits in one race. We always come here to do a good job but some things always seem to get in our way. But well done to the #8 guys and the team for another win here.”
With one round of the 2019-20 WEC season still to run - the 8 Hours of Bahrain - Mike and the #7 crew now occupy second place in the championship standings with 168 points, just seven points behind the sister #8 team with 39 points still available. The result marks Toyota's third Le Mans victory in a row and also means they have won the LMP1 Manufacturers' Title for the second year in succession.
Image courtesy of Toyota Gazoo Racing.