The 2023 FIA WEC season finale, held under the floodlights in Bahrain Saturday night, produced plenty of action and a suite of historic results. The headline in the top class was Toyota’s No. 8 crew clinching the 2023 FIA Hypercar Drivers World Endurance Championship in style, leading a dominant 1-2 finish for the Japanese brand.
Toyota’s achievements this season should not be downplayed. After spending years deflecting the criticism that its successes in the sportscar arena were primarily down to a lack of credible opposition, it delivered the goods up against four other major factory teams in 2023.
Yes, it has an invaluable level of experience at this high level. Yes, it has a mature platform to bring to battle in the GR010 HYBRID, which now has three Hypercar titles under its belt. But this season, by winning six of the seven races, it proved that it is the benchmark for everyone else in the class, and it will continue to be the team to beat when everyone reconvenes in Qatar next year, with the next wave of factory cars present and ready to race.
The No. 8 crew’s Driver’s title and TGR’s sixth race win add to the team’s laundry list of successes this year, which, lest we forget, includes the Hypercar Manufacturer’s crown that it sealed on home soil in September. The only blot on the page during the season came at the Le Mans 24 Hours back in June, when Ferrari stole all the headlines and stormed to victory with its 499P. It was a punishing event which left scars that the team will undoubtedly use as a primary source of motivation next season.
Sometimes things as simple as wildlife encounters foil the might of even Toyota. An errant squirrel on track at Le Mans caused damage, leading to rising temperatures and decreased pace, helping Ferrari to their historic victory. Toyota, though, came back blazing and took the manufacturer’s crown come Fuji. Rainier Ehrhardt/Motorsport Images
As for the title-winning drivers, Saturday’s performances saw Sebastien Buemi become a four-time WEC champion, as well as Brendon Hartley, who is now a double champion with Porsche and Toyota.
Early in the season, Buemi told RACER that everyone behind the scenes at Toyota Gazoo Racing was desperate to win every race this year. They craved respect for the level they operate at. While the team didn’t manage to achieve its primary objective of winning the Centenary Le Mans 24 Hours, he feels that by winning every other race, it is ‘mission accomplished’.
“I am so proud of this group,” Buemi said after the race. “We’ve done a good job in terms of consistency. We won two races, and car No. 7 won four. On a few occasions, we have been unlucky and couldn’t win, but they were unlucky with the torque sensor at Portimao and the incident at Le Mans. But for us to win the title with the race win here makes it all special.”
Hard work pays off in big ways, with more to come when the WEC comes back into action for 2024 in Qatar, the team says. Motorsport Images
He also revealed that the No. 8 crew were dealing with intermittent issues throughout the final race, which made what looked from the outside like a comfortable win and 1-2 formation finish, a stressful experience towards the end.
“Car No. 7 really put the pressure on,” he explained. “We knew all the time we could retire and they would win the championship. It was more difficult for us to manage the race from the lead. We knew the second and third was enough [to seal the title], so we didn’t want to take risks, but on the other hand, we had a clutch failure and a starter motor failure. Restarting the car was hard; we lost a lot of time because we couldn’t restart the car properly. That put us under so much pressure. But we delivered.
“This year we didn’t always dominate. We won a lot of the time by just executing races well. It was tough but we earned it.”
29-year-old Ryo Hirakawa, meanwhile, now has two titles in two seasons to his name, giving him a remarkable 100 percent winning rate. This, he told RACER, is something he could only dream of only a few years ago before he was promoted to the Hypercar team.
“I struggled last year in my first year, but my teammates Brendon and Seb helped me so much to improve,” he admitted. “Thanks to them I managed to up my game. I made a big step in my performance, and I am grateful to have them as teammates.
“I felt so much pressure because there were so many more manufacturers, but we worked hard. Winning the championship as a Japanese driver, for a Japanese manufacturer is very special.
“I am honored to be part of the team and I believe there is more to come.”