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Bizarre 2017 Le Mans adds new twist: Driver mistaken as marshal

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The 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans ended two days ago but has had two post-script items that only add to the bizarre nature of this year’s race.

On Monday, it was the disqualification of Vaillante Rebellion’s No. 13 Oreca 07 Gibson from an overall podium (third place) and second in LMP2 following bodywork modification to address a starter issue.

On Tuesday, it’s the emergence of video to show a driver in a nearly identical firesuit to that of a pit lane or corner marshal giving a thumbs up to Kamui Kobayashi’s No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid under a safety car period that may have led to the Toyota’s eventual clutch failure.

Via Eurosport, it shows Kobayashi’s car stopped at pit out with a pit lane marshal in the background. Meanwhile after a couple seconds, Vincent Capillaire, an LMP2 class driver in the So24! and FLEX-BOX backed No. 45 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier JS P217 Gibson, emerged from his pit garage to give Kobayashi a thumbs up.

However the Japanese driver appeared to mistake that sign of encouragement as an OK to leave the pit lane and return to the race course. The orange and black firesuit Capillaire had on was almost identical to the marshal’s, albeit with the FLEX-BOX black bar and branding a little lower on the suit.

Under a safety car period at Le Mans, any car that pits is held at pit out with a red light, until a green light flashes to be released. This is different from the slow zones that have become a recent staple of this race, which help prevent full safety car periods where the full 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe is slowed. Unless a slow zone is present on the front straight, there are no pit lane restrictions and drivers can enter and exit pit lane in a normal manner.

Capillaire attempted to explain his action on his Facebook page.

“Saturday evening, during the race, I was waiting for my relay, helmet on the head at my box,” Capillaire said, with the French translated to English.

“I wanted to show my encouragement to the leader car, stopped at red light a few meters in front of my box. .
It was a spontaneous encouragement mark as it happens between pilots.

“I was fined by Stewards for this gesture and I admit it was inopportune. I regret that.”

Kobayashi had started and stopped his car multiple times as a result; the clutch issue that followed came as an apparent result of this issue.

“The problem is that he was at the pit exit, so he was in pit mode where we started in electric, which is like the car was, he was in a mode which normally should not be used, so he has done several restarts with the clutch and the combustion engine,” Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon told Sportscar365, and later expanded that this burned up the clutch.

Capillaire, one of the youngest drivers in the field in American teenager Matt McMurry (19; turns 20 in November) and the oldest driver in the field in U.S.-based South African Mark Patterson (65), finished 16th in the 25-car LMP2 class and 33rd on the road of the 49 cars that finished and 60 that started, though will move up one position as a result of the Rebellion disqualification from Monday.

Toyota, meanwhile, could only feel regret after yet another lost opportunity.

“We will analyze what went wrong because we cannot accept a double retirement like that during the night,” team president Toshio Sato said in the team’s post-race release.

“We will come back stronger and more determined than ever; our Le Mans challenge will continue.”

Toyoda on Le Mans agony: ‘Sorry we weren’t able to let you drive all out’

Akio Toyoda (JPN) TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. Photo: Toyota
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Toyota’s realistic chances of victory at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans went away in the overnight hours with the Nos. 7 and 9 Toyota TS050 Hybrids retiring within half an hour of each other with a clutch problem and accident damage, respectively. The remaining Toyota Gazoo Racing entry, the No. 8 car, rallied from its own front motor issues to finish nine laps back of the winning Porsche.

Here are the entire words of Akio Toyoda, President, Toyota Motor Corporation, presented to the team after this latest gut-wrenching loss at a race Toyota is still yet to win.

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing.
Le Mans 24 Hours Race, 12th to 18th June 2017
Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France. Photo: Toyota

“Sorry we weren’t able to let you drive all out.”

Normally, it would be proper to start off with words of appreciation for the support provided to us by our fans. However, for this time at Le Mans, I think I must first direct my opening words to our drivers.

To me, at Le Mans for the first time, our drivers said, “We want you up together with us at the center of the podium”, “For that, we definitely don’t want to lose”, and “So fight together with us.”

In return, I said: “Drive all out. Trust the cars the mechanics readied for you. Enjoy Le Mans.”

Despite telling them such, I was not able to allow them to drive all out. This, I truly regret. Even though our drivers drove believing in our cars, I can only say how sorry and how full of regret I am.

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing.
Le Mans 24 Hours Race, 12th to 18th June 2017
Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France.

I believe that the Toyota engineers, mechanics and parts suppliers, who built our cars for this battle, all feel the same.

Therefore, bearing the burden as a representative of all such people, please let me say once again: “Sorry we weren’t able to let you drive all out.”

Also, to all the people related to the Toyota team, including our nine drivers, I would like to share two things on my mind at this moment.

The first is for our fans.

To all the fans who supported us believing in victory for Toyota, I am truly sorry that we were not able to meet your expectations.

And for believing in us and giving us your passionate support for 24 hours all the way to the end, I want to express my deepest appreciation. Thank you. Thank you all so very much.

Once again, Toyota will strive for the day on which we can, together, have smiles on our faces.

Dr. Wolfgang Porsche, chairman of Porsche Supervisory Board, and Akyo Toyoda, President, Toyota Motor Corporation. Photo: Porsche

The second is for the Porsche team.

After last year’s battle, I happily received many comments from people at Porsche recognizing us as a rival.

To live up to having been called a “rival”, I had thought that what we needed to do this year was to again put up a brilliant fight that would captivate the fans.

That is why the team was able to take up bold challenges that resulted in new technologies and skills.

To the Porsche team, I say congratulations. And I also say thank you very much.

In the end, however, Toyota was not able to put up the kind of fight that could captivate the fans, like it did last year.

This time, both Porsche and we, Toyota, were not able to complete without incident 24 hours of driving in the hybrid cars that we put to the challenge on the roads of Le Mans.

Both even winning car No. 2 and our car No. 8, which completed the race, were forced to undergo time-consuming, trouble-caused repairs, before struggling to cross the finish line.

While the hybrid technology that has advanced through competition in the FIA World Endurance Championship puts its abilities on display in six-hour races, it might be that it is not yet ready for the long distance of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The power of electricity is absolutely necessary for cars take on a more-emotional presence.

Le Mans is a precious laboratory in which we can continue to take up the challenges related to the technologies involved, putting such technologies to the test in an extreme environment.

We will hone our technologies even further and ripen them to provide our customers with technologies that will truly make them smile. And we, Toyota, will go on making effort after effort so that we can continue making ever-better cars.

We invite you to look forward to what we will be able to achieve. Thank you.

Akio Toyoda

President

Toyota Motor Corporation

Le Mans: Pre-race post roundup, notes and quick race preview

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Here’s a quick roundup of posts from the week leading into the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a few key things to look forward to in this weekend’s 85th 24 Hours of Le Mans:

Here’s the provisional starting grid.

PREVIEW

The race from an overall standpoint has a rather simple story line: Either Toyota finally breaks through after years of heartbreak, that culminated with its final 10 minute failure last year, or it doesn’t. The Toyota TS050 Hybrid has the clear one-lap pace and Kamui Kobayashi threw down an absolutely amazing pole lap; Toyota will look to translate that over 24 hours. It’s never that simple, of course, and Porsche will play the long game to hope its Porsche 919 Hybrids can overcome the pace deficit.

In LMP2, higher than expected top speeds have the ability to wreak havoc on the rest of the field. How well will the LMP2s and LMP1s interact together in traffic? Will the performance capabilities of the new LMP2 cars outperform the abilities of some of the drivers in them? Which Oreca wins? OK, we’re hoping it’s not a complete Oreca whitewash but all indications are it will be one of the 14 combined Oreca 07/Alpine A470 chassis that will win in this class.

GTE-Pro, fortunately, seems a bit less settled with Aston Martin and Ferrari locking out the first two rows and Ford and Corvette just behind. Porsche is slightly further back but not out of it either. After last year’s two-horse race between Ford and Ferrari, it looks set to be a proper fight here.

The same is true in GTE-Am, with a surprise pole coming for the sole Corvette in that class, but its one-lap pace may be limited as the race goes on with two gentlemen drivers alongside. There’s still a good potential seven or eight winners here in the 16-car class.

The four IndyCar drivers of note we’re following look to shine in their stints – Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin add Le Mans to their busy schedules while Townsend Bell looks to defend his class victory in GTE-Am.

Add in Rubens Barrichello making his debut, a host of IMSA stars including both Taylor brothers in the field, the number of Formula E drivers back in sports cars and some other Mazda Road to Indy graduates in their first race and there’s plenty of drivers with story lines to watch.

The race kicks off at 3 p.m. local time and 9 a.m. ET.

Toyota leads polesitters for 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans

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After a staggering lap in the second of three qualifying sessions for the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, Kamui Kobayashi’s No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid will lead the field to the green for Saturday’s endurance classic, as Toyota Gazoo Racing looks for its elusive first victory at Le Mans.

Kobayashi’s best time of 3:14.791 is a new lap record for the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe in the configuration that features chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight.

He’ll share the car with Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin, the latter driver having been swapped over to this entry for this race compared to the rest of the FIA World Endurance Championship season in place of Jose Maria Lopez.

Toyota had the 2016 Le Mans overall win in the bag with the No. 5 car, driven by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, last year before a technical defect occurred on a connector on the air line between the turbo charger and the intercooler, which caused a loss of turbo charger control.

That trio, now in the renumbered No. 8 Toyota, will roll off second in LMP1 and overall.

The pair of Porsche 919 Hybrids are next, with the third Toyota unable to better fifth in the hands of Lopez, Yuji Kunimoto and Nicolas Lapierre. That third Toyota can be used for strategic purposes against the Porsches for Saturday’s race.

The privateer LMP1 ByKolles Enso CLM P1/01 NISMO did well to get ahead of the LMP2 field, Oliver Webb turning the No. 4 car’s best time of 3:24.170.

The other polesitters in the other three classes are Alex Lynn (LMP2, No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 07 Gibson, 3:25.352), Darren Turner (GTE-Pro, No. 97 Aston Martin Vantage V8, 3:50.837) and Fernando Rees (GTE-Am, No. 50 Larbre Competition Corvette C7.R, 3:52.843).

All these classes changed hands from the Wednesday polesitters.

The unofficial starting grid is below.

RESULTS
STARTING GRID

Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi smashes Le Mans lap record at 3:14.791

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Kamui Kobayashi was provisional polesitter after Wednesday’s first round of qualifying for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with a time up on last year’s pole by more than a second.

He only went four seconds quicker than he did Wednesday in Thursday’s second round of qualifying in the No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid.

Kobayashi posted a best lap of 3:14.791 around the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe, which was the fastest lap ever turned around the track since chicanes were installed on the Mulsanne Straight, and the fastest lap ever speed-wise with an average of more than 251.9 kph. Hans Stuck had the previous speed record in 1985, 156.471 mph (251.815 km/h).

The previous best lap time on this circuit configuration was Neel Jani at 3:16.887, set in 2015 in a Porsche 919 Hybrid.

Kobayashi’s Wednesday time was a 3:18.793, before teammate Mike Conway went quicker at a 3:18.651 in the early part of this second session on Thursday. Stephane Sarrazin is the car’s third driver.

Kobayashi’s lap was the spell-binder and standout of this session but all four class pole positions have also changed hands.

Vitaly Petrov moved to the top of LMP2 in the No. 25 CEFC Manor TRS Racing Oreca 07 Gibson at 3:25.549 in the car he shares with Roberto Gonzalez and Simon Trummer. Thomas Laurent had been on the pole prior to that in the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca at 3:26.776.

Aston Martin’s pacesetter in GTE-Pro switched from the No. 95 Vantage (Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen, Richie Stanaway) to the No. 97 car (Darren Turner, Jonny Adam, Daniel Serra) and a new best time of 3:51.860.

Will Stevens is now head of the grid in GTE-Am in JMW Motorsport’s No. 84 Ferrari 488 GTE at 3:53.981.

This session was extended until 9:30 p.m. local time following a crash for Erik Maris’ No. 33 Eurasia Ligier JS P217, with barrier repairs, but now there’s been a further 10-minute reduction after an accident for Timothe Buret’s No. 23 Panis-Barthez Ligier. Buret’s out of his car after his incident.

The final two hours of qualifying to set the finality of the grid comes later tonight after a half hour break from 9:30 to 10 p.m. local time.