Rob Leupen has watched Toyota try and fail to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans many times. The Toyota Gazoo Racing team director was there when the Japanese manufacturer returned to the French endurance classic in 2012 and was there last year when their race-leading car stuttered and stopped in sight of victory.
In Spa, however, in the darkness of the Ardennes evening, the Dutchman is taken congratulations from everyone who’s passing by the brightly lit up Toyota pit box. Things are looking up for Toyota, having just welcomed back the number 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi after six hours of racing to take a one-two win in the 6 Hours of Spa. The win comes on the back of another successful run in Silverstone.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we were very strong, that we drove very well,” Leupen says as around him the overwhelmingly German crew of Toyota Motorsport GmbH celebrates first place in the final race before the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “I feel bad for car number 7 [of Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi], they were the faster ones, but they had so much bad luck with the Full Course Yellows that twice worked against them. That was car number 8’s luck and how the Porsche came back somewhat towards the end.
“In the end, I can only be satisfied, when you have your cars on the first two places.”
The final half hour saw the top contenders one-by-one visit the pits for a last splash of fuel. Porsche momentarily went into the lead before the 919 also came in for fuel, but that wouldn’t upset the mood in the Japanese garage. Today was going to be Toyota’s day.
“We knew it was looking good. It was a bit suspenseful near the end between the numbers 7 and 8, because Kamui [Kobayashi] wanted to [go for the lead], but couldn’t anymore as we didn’t want to take any risks.
“This was a big boost for us and a good win, I think we deserved it.”
Whereas last year the speed seemed to have only come once Le Mans race week got underway, this season it has been with Toyota since the start in Silverstone.
“The difference with last year is big. We have a new engine, one that’s much more efficient than last year’s. That one was built very quickly, but for the new engine we’ve had a bit more time.
“We’ve also improved the car in every other way. As we’ve seen, aerodynamically it also works very well. We’re very content.”
With confidence bolstered for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, the team now returns to its state of the art workplace in Köln-Marsdorf to get ready for the crown jewel of the FIA World Endurance Championship.
“Now we’ll start preparing for Le Mans. It’ll be exciting because it’s a different race. We’re going for it and I think we stand a good chance if we keep working like this.
“Last year we also knew we’d be contenders. Of course, this year we’ve made another step forward, and we also know that Porsche isn’t dominating—it’s rather the opposite.”
Drama struck Toyota last year as Kazuki Nakajima was leading with mere minutes to go when a mechanical failure undid the tremendous sacrifice that had been made to put the car into the race lead within grasp of victory. The decades-long dream of Le Mans glory still allures Toyota.
“Le Mans is a race in itself, we’ve seen that last year. We knew that we’d be contenders, but we had no idea that it would go the way it did, no one had dared to dream that.
“We go to Le Mans well-prepared, perhaps even somewhat as the favorite.”