While missing out on victory at the centenary edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours back in June came as an enormous disappointment for everyone involved in Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Hypercar program, securing the FIA World Endurance Hypercar manufacturers’ title on home soil last weekend at Fuji Speedway ensured that its 2023 campaign was still a successful one.
The pressure has been on Toyota Gazoo Racing to perform all season long, up against renewed competition in the Hypercar category. By winning races and a manufacturers title, its unmatched performances since Porsche walked away from LMP1 in 2017 look far more impressive. If it had struggled to do so against this new crop of competition, questions would need to be asked about the level of time and resources pumped into its WEC program.
It’s been clear since the cars hit the track at Sebring that Toyota has never been more desperate for success. It will come as somewhat of a relief then, that Ferrari’s historic performance at Le Mans proved to be a blip in an otherwise stellar season for the Japanese brand.
The No. 7-led 1-2 finish last weekend extended its win streak on home turf to six races and added to its impressive record this season, which includes wins at Sebring, Portimao, Spa, Portimao and now Fuji. Toyota has been the class of the field in 2023, with a mature GR010 HYBRID platform and a set of drivers that more often than not have been both relentless and ruthless in their execution.
The Fuji triumph didn’t come easy, though, making the taste of the victory champagne all the more sweet. At each of the previous rounds this season, the Ferrari AF Corse effort has been Toyota’s greatest threat; it was therefore hugely encouraging from a neutral perspective that on a weekend where the 499Ps struggled for outright pace on race day, another manufacturer was able to step up.
Although Ferrari couldn’t offer a challenge to Toyota at Fuji, Porsche piled the pressure on right from the start. Motorsport Images
Enter Porsche, which led almost four of the six hours, thanks to a herculean effort from Laurens Vanthoor and later Kevin Estre in the No. 6 963. The sudden uptick in form and performance from the Penske-run operation came as a pleasant surprise, after a frankly underwhelming trundle through the first five races. Vanthoor muscled past Conway into Turn 1 at the start and didn’t look back.
“They were good, and we were stuck behind the Ferraris for too many laps,” admitted No. 7 Toyota driver Conway, when asked to assess Porsche’s pace. “But once I got clear our pace was similar and by the end of my stint, I was able to get closer. They didn’t give an inch, though, so it was good fun.
“We felt like they were pretty good after following them (Porsche’s 963s) in practice,” Conway continued when asked if Toyota expected Porsche to be in the mix pre-race. “The 963 looked particularly strong in the final sector and last corner.”
When the two Toyotas finally caught the No. 6 during Estre’s middle stint, it was fascinating to watch the Frenchman put in a methodical, confident performance through traffic to hold Jose Maria Lopez and eventually Ryo Hirakawa at bay.
“You could see the effect that sitting behind someone has, it really forces you to eat your tires,” Conway pointed out.
“I was happy with the pace,” Lopez added when asked about his efforts to take the lead. “But I got stuck for almost a full stint behind Kevin and damaged my front tires.
“He made no mistakes and in the places where I could pass, he was spot on. He gave me no chance to take the lead. So when Ryo came up behind me, he was on fresher tires so it was only fair he was allowed to have a go.”
Nevertheless, Kobayashi in the No. 7 and Brendon Hartley in the No. 8 managed to finish the job, coming home a lap ahead of everyone in the Hypercar field bar the No. 6 Porsche.
Andre Lotterer ended up crossing the line 47 seconds off the No. 7, unable to keep up once the floodgates opened just before he climbed in when Ryo Hirakawa found a way past Lopez and finally Estre at Turn 10 to give Toyota the lead. From there, team orders coming into play in the late stages, allowing the No. 7 crew to move back into the lead for the first time since the opening seconds of the race, would be the only twist in the final two hours.
It wasn’t the lights-to-flag victory many expected when it became clear that Ferrari wouldn’t be in the mix for the win if the race was held in dry conditions, with lots of green-flag running. It was, however, another showcase of Toyota’s ability to overcome adversity and find a way to win on an afternoon when things weren’t necessarily going to plan.
All the Toyota team pulled as one to bring home the manufacturers’ crown in style, but will they be as accommodating when battling each other for the drivers’ title? Motorsport Images
The million-dollar question is whether or not Toyota always had a little bit extra in reserve. Was anyone in its garage actually concerned by Vanthoor’s ability to create a healthy lead in the race’s opening stint, after pushing past Conway at the start?
When the manufacturers’ trophy reaches the colossal cabinet in the foyer of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s European headquarters in Cologne, it will take pride of place. On a season in which Toyota was pushed to its limits for the first time in years and challenged with setting the bar each weekend, it has passed almost every test.
“It means so much to us. There are so many people involved and it’s been a hard year,” Lopez told RACER. “Being here for so long meant people expected so much from us, even with BoP. The game has changed here but it’s important that we fight.”
The next task for Toyota is ensuring one of its two crews takes the drivers’ championship in November when the WEC heads to Bahrain. Currently, the No. 8 crew hold the advantage over the trio in the No. 7.
With a 31-point deficit to overcome, Ferrari’s Le Mans winners in the No. 51 are still technically in the hunt. But James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Antonio Giovanazzi will be under no illusions that things must go horribly wrong for Toyota for them to claim the title.
It will be interesting to see whether Toyota manages the race and attempts to reduce all risks when the sun sets on race day. Lopez, for one, expects it will let the battle play out.
“We are always thinking of the team — the most important thing in Japan was to secure the manufacturers’ title,” Lopez said. “But in Bahrain, it will be a straight fight. It always has been this year. The fastest car will be ahead. We have proven over the years that we don’t have incidents when we are fighting each other.”