WEC: Second place for Mike Conway at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

18th June 2018

Mike Conway took his second runners-up spot in three years after a historic weekend for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing saw the Japanese manufacturer secure a one-two victory at the Circuit de La Sarthe with Mike and #7 TS050 coming home in second place behind the #8.

After three years of heartbreak and misfortune, Mike and his TOYOTA team headed to Le Mans hoping to finally lift the curse that had come in between TOYOTA and their dream result at the biggest race in the world of motorsport.

Successful tests at La Sarthe and a dominant opening race at Spa in the first round of the FIA WEC Superseason left Mike and the team full confidence before the week and this confidence was shown on track as TOYOTA took control of the week’s practice and qualifying sessions.  

With the grid for the 86th Le Mans 24 Hours being decided by the best single lap from three two-hour qualifying sessions, split over Wednesday and Thursday, Mike and the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing began its Le Mans 24 Hours challenge in a positive fashion.

Dominating the qualifying proceedings, TOYOTA locked out the front row for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Mike’s #7 starting in 2nd place after Kamui Kobayashi posted their fastest 3:17.377 lap time in the first of the three qualifying sessions.

“Well done to Kazuki and the #8 guys on getting pole position. I'm pleased for everyone in the team but the real job is still to come in the race. We have concentrated on having a strong car in the race and I'm happy with the work we have done so far. We know from experience that Le Mans is a tough race but I'm ready for it.”

Hoping to take victory at La Sarthe at its 20th attempt, TOYOTA started the race in the same fashion as they dominated qualifying, with the two TS050s leading the way with Mike in the #7 taking the lead briefly from the #8 and staying there for four laps before the positions swapped back to their starting order.

Very light rain on parts of the track during the opening hour had little impact but after the first-corner contact for the #8, the team required a precautionary change of the rear end at Sebastien Buemi's second stop - putting the #7 into the lead of the race.

Both Mike and Sebastien, in the sister TOYOTA car, were planning quadruple stints on the same set of tyres, so refuelling only at the pit stops. Sébastien's third stop came, unfortunately for the #8, at the same time as slow zones were declared due to accidents, giving an advantage to Mike in the #7 car which pitted two laps later and resumed in the lead.

At 5.30pm, with 43 laps completed, Mike handed over driving duties to José as he retained the lead of the race and continued to lead the TOYOTA dominance after almost three hours of racing.

The #7 lost the lead of the race on the 56th lap as José was passed by the #8 TS050. The #7 then had an unscheduled pit stop on lap 58 due to a rear left puncture, costing the team 47 seconds. Two laps later a brief safety car was brought out due to an incident with an LMP2 car.

On lap 70 another safety car, caused by a heavy accident for the #4 ByKolles, brought out the safety car again. Both TS050 HYBRIDs pitted; José as scheduled for fuel and Fernando Alonso in the #8 due to a right rear puncture. With a lap lead over third place, the time lost pitting under safety car counted for little and the #7 led by a second from the #8 when the race resumed on lap 75.

A lap later, Fernando passed José to demote the #7 to second place and, after another stop and driver change, the six-hour mark saw the #8 led by 12.587secs to Kamui Kobayashi, who was now in the driver’s seat for the #7.

“My stint was okay. At the beginning, with the rain coming down, I was trying to be on the safe side and once that passed I tried to keep it consistent. Traffic was okay, difficult at times but we tried to manage it as best we could. In the slow zones sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It's a long race so there was no need to risk anything.”

Early into his first stint, Kamui in the #7 closed to the rear of Kazuki and got past on lap 102 just before making a fuel stop. When the #8 did likewise, the sister TOYOTA car rejoined the track less than two seconds behind the #7 leader as the pair fought an exciting battle at the front.

After 137 laps, Mike returned to the cockpit of the #7 for his second time behind the wheel, inheriting a small lead. That gap grew to around 40 seconds when an unfortunately-timed slow zone cost Sébastien time during a fuel stop.

The #7’s lead extended further when the #8 was punished with a 60-second stop-go penalty for breaking the slow zone speed limit, putting the #7 2mins 20secs ahead as the race reached 169 laps.

With half distance approaching, and 181 laps in the book, Mike's stint ended and José resumed in the lead heading into the second part of the race.

“We are only halfway so there's still a long way to go. We are running as a team and trying not to take too many risks. It was quite close for a while but we got the buffer and now we will try to keep that. We have seen how you can lose a lot of time with slow zones and safety cars. Even though we have a decent lead it can disappear quickly so we have to keep doing what we are doing.”

As the race progressed through the night at Le Mans, the two TOYOTAs were soon fighting wheel-to-wheel as the gap between the two cars was reduced in the darkness and with eight and half hours remaining, the #7 slipped back to second place behind the sister car.

The morning hours were interrupted by two safety car procedures, the first to repair a loose drain cover on the exit of Tertre Rouge and the second for a big shunt for the LMP2 #22 United Autosport Ligier. 

During the two safety car periods Jose Maria Lopez, who had taken over the #7 Toyota from Mike Conway, lost over a minute to Alonso’s leading #8 Toyota by falling behind a different safety car train.

As the race grew closer to its conclusion and fatigued came further into play, Kobayashi then dropped a lap behind the sister car when he missed his lap to pit for fuel, obliging him to cruise round for half a lap or so and earning the #7 car a pair of late penalties for exceeding the mandated 11-lap stint and putting the lead of the race too far away from the #7.

After 388 laps of La Sarthe, the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans came to its end with the #7 coming home in second place, two laps down to the sister #8, as TOYOTA secured a memorable one-two finish on their 20th attempt.

“It was an intense, close fight for a long time; we were all nervous watching on TV. We were all out there to do the best we can without taking big risks. It's been a long race, lots of things changing. It shows that Toyota can build two strong cars and we can race hard. Congratulations to car #8, they had a great week and a great race. Our car fell short but it's a great team result.”

After a nine-week break, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing will return to action on 17-19 August with the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the third round of the 2018-19 WEC season.

MB Partners Toyota Hybrid Racing Bell Prosperity Investment Management