Toyota Racing returns to the Le Mans 24 Hours next weekend, with the team aiming to show the potential of its TS030 Hybrid car.
Team principal Yoshiaki Kinoshita was quick to stress that 2012 is a learning year for the project, but also said that the team wants a strong performance to help it towards achieving its aim of winning the race in coming years.
“This is a learning year for Toyota Racing but nevertheless we set ourselves high standards, so we want to prove the performance potential of the hybrid system and the TS030 Hybrid,” said Kinoshita.
“We know it is not easy to face such experienced opponents and we face a steep learning curve, but the ultimate medium-term target for this project is to win Le Mans so we aim to take a big step in this direction in 2012.”
While the car's hybrid powertrain has been produced by the Motor Sport Division of Toyota Motor Corporation at Higashifuji in Japan, the chassis has been developed by Toyota Motorsport GmbH (TMG) in Cologne in Germany. The TMG facility is also the team's base and provides the on-track personnel.
“Toyota is a pioneer in the field of hybrid technology so Toyota Racing benefits from this immense experience and knowledge,” stated Kinoshita. “This is a new technology in motorsport terms so there are many things to learn and develop, but Hisatake Murata and his hybrid project team, as well as the hybrid vehicle development division at Toyota Motor Corporation, have been working on these systems in racing for several years already. This gives us a unique knowledge which we hope to demonstrate.
“At the same time, TMG has been developing the TS030 Hybrid chassis with a team led by John Litjens. They have put all our knowledge or aerodynamics, simulation and systems into this car and we are really proud of the result.”
The TS030 Hybrid was driven for the first time in January, and has completed 18 days of testing at the Paul Ricard, Motorland Aragon and Magny-Cours, as well as at Le Mans itself.
The team fields two cars in this year's race. The #7 is driven by two-time Le Mans winner Alex Wurz, sportscar regular Nicolas Lapierre and former Toyota-backed Formula 1 driver Kazuki Nakajima.
“I have always had a fascination for sportscar racing and I have been a fan of Le Mans since my childhood,” said 38-year-old Austrian Wurz. “Each year you come, you feel a bit like Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans.
“It is a special race, a very heroic one and Le Mans racing in the last few years has become ultra-competitive. If you only look at the race results, you are fighting for 100ths of a second every lap because sometimes after 24 hours the cars are only a few seconds apart. If you break that down over 24 hours you understand how competitive the racing environment is.
“We are facing extremely strong competition from teams that have grown into this environment and we are modest enough to say that we do not expect to be winning Le Mans this year. But of course we will be pushing like crazy to get the best result with our new technology, which is part of the future.”
28-year-old Frenchman Lapierre has raced an LMP1 car at Le Mans for the past three years, twice finishing fifth overall.
“Le Mans is one of the most exciting events in the world for me; from a driver’s point of view but also as a Frenchman,” he said. “There are so many fans here!
“This year is going to be really interesting and exciting to arrive with this new hybrid technology. I am very happy with my team-mates Alex and Kazuki. We have a great relationship. I knew both of them a little bit before but working with them closely together is a real pleasure.
“Also I am very proud to be here with Toyota Racing, which is a fantastic team. Since we started testing in January, I know everyone in the team more and more, as well as developing a shared method of work. I have to say that I very much enjoy the way of working at Toyota Racing.”
2012 marks 27-year-old Nakajima's first time racing at Le Mans.
“Already during the test day you can feel that the Le Mans 24 Hours is very special; there are so many spectators on site,” he said. “Of course many more people will come for the race weekend.
“For me it is going to be exciting to participate in this event for the first time. I am sure that you perform well if you enjoy yourself and I do enjoy driving on this track, being with my team and my co-drivers. All of us will do our utmost to maximize our performance.
“My favourite part of the track is the Porsche corners although I am still learning how quick you can go through the chicane and how quick you can run over the kerbs.”
Car #8 is shared by former Peugeot aces Stephane Sarrazin and Anthony Davidson as well as Red Bull reserve driver Sebastien Buemi.
“It is still a race that makes me dream,” said 36-year-old Frenchman Sarrazin, who has claimed pole at Le Mans three times. “I have finished on the podium and some years I was on the way to win but Le Mans decided otherwise. It might be the only race where you have this feeling; the race decides its winner.
“You can prepare everything as best as you can but you need to have success on your side at Le Mans. All has to fit well on the big day, all the elements must be united; the team and the car have to be perfect. It doesn’t matter the joy or the disappointment I had here in the past, Le Mans is still magic and there are some aspects which have a unique flavour.
“I am proud to have been on pole position three times at Le Mans. Everybody says pole is not a priority for a 24-hour race, but this is a unique feeling and something that increases the motivation of the whole team.”
Sky Sports F1 pundit Davidson said: “For a driver, and for a team in fact, Le Mans is a challenge like no other. In the race we have to find a good pace during the night as well as managing the traffic, which is always tricky here. Le Mans is difficult physically, but also mentally with the pressure and how huge this event is.
“To succeed here you need to be on top form, it’s as simple as that. The test day gave us plenty of encouragement and we have to continue in this direction in order to be well prepared for the race. I am a positive and realistic guy; I hope we will have the car to fight at the front but I also know that 2012 is our first year so we have many things to learn.”
23-year-old Swiss driver Buemi will be making his Le Mans debut, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Georges Gachnang who raced there in 1960 and later started a Toyota dealership.
“I am impatient to be there at the start of this famous race; this feeling only grew during the test day when I discovered that the track is really a superb one,” Buemi said. “I like the last part, with the Porsche curves and Ford corners.
“There is also an emotional connection to this race because my grandfather already raced here and I am glad to follow in his footsteps. My family is also tied to the Toyota brand, so it is special.
“My first experience during the Le Mans test was positive and I am now looking forward to discover the atmosphere during the race week, with the scrutineering in downtown, the night qualifying session, the parade; I think I will have an interesting and exciting week. I want my first Le Mans to be a happy memory for me, especially with the new hybrid technology developed by Toyota.”
TCF will be once again covering the full 24 hours of the race, make sure you check back for hourly updates and the latest news direct from Le Mans.