LE MANS, France — Toyotas are being hunted this weekend in France, and it’s for a good reason. Thanks to an overall victory streak that has reached the gaudy heights of five in a row, there’s a giant target placed squarely on the Toyota Gazoo Racing team heading into the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Just as American racing fans have the Indianapolis 500 as the biggest open-wheel racing event on the planet, the rest of the world has Le Mans, which rivals Indy with 300,000 rabid fans who stuff themselves into the massive 8.5-mile track to witness motor racing’s World Cup.
Located two hours southwest of Paris, the nonstop weekend of elite sports car battles presents racing’s greatest gauntlet of physical and mechanical stamina. Cars break. People break. Le Mans doesn’t care. Only its winners are remembered.
And by the end of Sunday, when those 24 merciless hours on the clock have wound down to zero, there will be a new winner whose name and automobiles will be celebrated as the unquestioned best, crowned as the top survivor of racing’s most punishing test. That’s how Le Mans works.
That’s why Toyota’s rivals are determined to make Le Mans’ 100th race the Last Dance for the all-conquering Japanese automaker.
In recent years, Toyota has had it easy, with a smattering of boutique manufacturers stepping into the ring. In predictable fashion, they’ve been beaten with ease.
And then two of sports car racing’s biggest names announced they were preparing for returns to Le Mans: Ferrari and Porsche. The pair picked the centenary event for the site of their fight with Toyota. Cadillac also jumped in, along with Peugeot — the de facto French national team — and in an instant, Toyota’s designs on a six-peat had serious complications.
Ferrari sent notice of its intentions to topple Toyota by taking pole position for the race with one of its gorgeous 499Ps and locking out the front row, lapping the track nearly 1.5 seconds faster than the best Toyota GR010 Hypercar. Porsche’s slippery 963 hybrid prototype boxed in the best Toyota in fourth and Cadillac was on the heels of the sister GR010.
Peugeot, with its wingless oddball, the 9X8, hasn’t bothered Toyota so far, but the race is primed to be a classic. From a depressing five-car grid in the marquee Hypercar class in 2022 to 16 cars and the massive fan bases that come with the four new challengers, the year-to-year transformation of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a once-in-a-generation happening.
Pole position for @Anto_Fuoco ! He makes it historic for @FerrariHypercar. Fifty years ago an Italian claimed pole position at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ferrari prototype. History repeats itself in this centenary year! ⏱3.22.982 #LeMansCentenary pic.twitter.com/OFfzsbglC6
— 24 Hours of Le Mans (@24hoursoflemans) June 8, 2023
“This is the craziest kind of change I think I’ve ever seen,” said Le Mans native Sebastien Bourdais, the four-time IndyCar champion who drives for Chip Ganassi’s factory Cadillac team and had his car burst into flames during qualifying. (He’s OK.) “Like, Le Mans has always been popular, but this is going to an entirely new kind of level.”
The Frenchman’s assessment is maddeningly accurate. Walking around the grounds is a bruising affair as energized fans mosh their way from point to point. Finding parking is all but impossible. Scooter and bicycle rental businesses are out of inventory to offer. Merchandise bearing the “100th” logo is hard to find as lovers of Le Mans have emptied the kiosks ahead of the green flag that waves at 4 p.m. local time on Saturday.
As difficult as it is to move around or buy something to eat or drink, even the shortest lines stretching a half-hour, there’s something important happening in the picturesque French countryside. The passion for endurance racing is skyrocketing.
Red and yellow flags featuring Ferrari’s famed Prancing Horse are everywhere. The Tifosi are being heckled by Peugeot fans with French Lion insignias on their flags. Porsche’s famous logo can’t be missed on flags and banners draped across the facility.
Take whatever semi-hostile/friendly vibe you’d find while tailgating at a New York Giants game, spread it over an unending sprint from day to night and back to day again, and run it across five big teams that want to crush each other, and that’s what’s coming at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Toyota’s Mike Conway, an IndyCar race winner from England who delivered two of the brand’s five victories with his teammates, is channeling his inner cool while aiming for his third Le Mans crown. He knows he and his cohorts are being stalked, but as the old saying goes, “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”
Until Ferrari, Porsche, Peugeot and Cadillac prove they can go 24 rounds and put Toyota on the canvas, Conway will plan on being in Victory Lane. Again.
“It just feels like another race, to be honest,” he said. “But obviously, it’s the big one. It’s felt nice all year to have all the manufacturers there and to be racing different people. It will be a bit more intense, maybe for a longer period of time. [Winning] the 100th anniversary, I’m sure it’s going to feel a bit more special.”