Le Mans seeks Toyota boost
Toyota unveiled the car with which it hopes to win June's Le Mans 24 Hours race on Wednesday, marking the the Japanese manufacturer's first foray back into international motorsport following its withdrawal from Formula One at the end of 2009.
With its TS030 Hybrid, Toyota had been expected to take on both Audi and Peugeot – the dominant sportscar racing manufacturers of recent times - at Le Mans. However, Peugeot shocked the motorsport world last week by closing its endurance racing programme with immediate effect, citing the 'difficult' European economic environment.
Peugeot had raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours since 2007 and its competitive rivalry with Audi was considered by some to have the potential of reigniting wider interest in a race that continues to enthrall motorsport fans but has struggled somewhat to attract the more casual viewer. Audi’s efforts to promote its Le Mans racing programme through a feature-length documentary film ‘Truth in 24’ had won particular acclaim.
In an attempt to give an undoubtedly spectacular annual event more context for the casual observer, last June the FIA and Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) announced plans for a World Endurance Championship (WEC) comprising eight races, including Le Mans, between March and September this year. The WEC will begin in the USA with a race at Sebring on 17th March before taking in races in Belgium, Britain, Brazil, Bahrain, Japan and China, as well as endurance racing's annual French showpiece.
The World Endurance Championship will begin in the USA at Sebring on 17th March
With Toyota's announcement that it will be returning to Le Mans and running a limited WEC programme, the Audi-Peugeot duopoly - a rivalry that saw Audi win the 2011 race by just 13 seconds, the fourth closest finish in the 79 year history of the race - appeared set to be broken.
Peugeot's surprise decision to concentrate on its consumer sales therefore came as a substantial blow to the FIA's and ACO's grand WEC plan. ACO president Jean-Claude Plassart, who along with FIA president Jean Todt is the architect of the WEC, said: “It’s a big disappointment for the Le Mans 24 Hours, and for the FIA World Endurance Championship starting in 2012, which was created at the request of the manufacturers, in particular Peugeot.
"There’s no doubt that the hundreds of thousands of fans who flock to Le Mans every year and the millions of viewers who follow the race on TV will regret the French make’s absence.”
Toyota's return to top-line motorsport goes at least some way to repairing the damage caused by Peugeot's withdrawal, particularly important in the first year of the WEC. If successful, its endurance racing programme is also likely to help repair the reputational damage to the Japanese brand cause by its high-investment, low-return eight year stint in Formula One between 2002 and 2009.
As well attempting to repair the fractures in sportscar and endurance racing, the WEC has been designed to provide a more regular showcase for new technologies: Audi has been running a diesel engine at Le Mans for several years, while Toyota intends to use Le Mans and the series as a platform for its hybrid technology.
"Hybrid is a core technology of Toyota so it is important to demonstrate this in a motorsport arena"
"Hybrid is a core technology of Toyota," said team president Yoshiaki Kinoshita, "so it is important to demonstrate this in a motorsport arena and we want to prove it can bring a performance advantage, both in terms of lap time and fuel efficiency."
The Japanese manufacturer's challenge to Audi will be based at the Toyota Motorsport headquarters in Germany, although ultimate control of the project rests with the parent company in Japan.
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