What excites you about endurance racing?
“This is a childhood dream, and I have been lucky enough to make it my career. I have to say too that for me, in my childhood, it was always a closed-cockpit sportscar that was my love. I’m so lucky to be part of this effort with a car, and with the Michelin tyres, that fit my driving style just perfectly.
“The role I have here with Toyota plays to my nature too, as a senior driver I have a part to play beyond the races themselves and, throughout my career it has come as second nature to push a team hard on technical development, I like to do that and they encourage me to do it too. It’s in my nature too to encourage teamwork, and the dynamic that builds that, and also to look to the longer term, to embrace and encourage strategy. This sport could have been made for me really!”
So what was your earliest memory of endurance racing? What lit that fire?
“As a young boy I went to the Vienna motorshow and they had the Porsche 962 of Walter Lechner there. I was racing in karts at the time and they had a kart parked next to the Porsche. It was a car I had always wanted to see, it had fascinated me.
“I think the guys on the stand could see that I was really taken with the car and they offered to let me come onto the stand, and then to sit inside the car! I sat in it, closed the door and that was the first time I was in this other world. I tell you, I thought right then, this is unbelievably cool!
“Way later I saw sportscars testing on the old Zeltweg track. At the time they were faster than the F1 cars. They were incredibly quick and so cool!
“When I was young there was also the Mercedes Junior team with Wendlinger, Frentzen and Schumacher and, of course I admired that and it was certainly something that I aspired to. What lucky guys to drive and race in such sexy cars. They were the steps that built up this love I have for the closed-cockpit sportscars.”
Are we at the threshold of a new golden era for sportscars? Manufacturers seem to be showing more and more interest in the technological opportunities and challenges here…
“I actually think we are well into that new era right now. We were there two years ago but then we had the unfortunate situation where Peugeot had to withdraw their programme. If they hadn’t felt the need to do that we would have three great sportscar manufacturer teams racing against each other right now with real cutting-edge technology and real relevance to their road cars too.
“Peugeot leaving was a setback but now we are counting down to Porsche coming. In 2014 it will be three manufacturers with very interesting, stunning technologies and real differences in the way that each manufacturer is looking at the rulebook. If anything the cars now are more relevant to the real world than even Group C was.
“Group C was as pure a motorsport formula as we have ever seen; huge power, huge downforce, beautiful cars and, yes, danger too. That made Group C a real favourite for so many people. But I can see, and can feel, that we are getting back to that sort of era, to that sort of following, and the technology has a big part to play in that. It attracts some people, but perhaps more important the racing, and the cool cars, get others interested in the technologies that contribute, and that pays off in the interest they show to the manufacturer.”
Have you ever driven one of the old Group C cars?
“Sadly no, but I would fit, I’ve sat in a few! They’re fascinating, but a bit scary!”
How do you see the major differences in the current era from your previous experiences with factory teams?
“Perhaps surprisingly it really is not all that different, every year you come back then it seems to involve, and require, more attention to detail.
“There have been times when the formula has been more about fuel capacity so you had to concentrate far more on being in fuel-saving mode. Nowadays though we really are flat-out all the time, even Le Mans is a full-on, flat-out 24-hour sprint. Efficiency is still important, you have to keep an eye on fuel consumption, and in particular on tyre wear, but the major requirement is pace, and consistency of pace.
“The need for attention to detail and efficiency now comes, of course, from the amazing technology we have, but mainly from the pressure that comes from the amazing competition out there. Everyone is pushing very hard and to succeed you have to be right on your game the whole time, there is no margin for error.”
But of course within that push, that 100% effort, there’s the need for compromise…
“Of course, this is probably the purest team sport in motor racing. Everyone has to play their part to the full, the drivers must bring the car back in contention, but in good shape for their team-mates, the pit crew must turn us around with no mistakes, and must give us a car that has no weak areas, and the team back at the factory must stay in touch with not only what they can see is possible within the rules and their resources, but respond to our competition.”
And so to Toyota, a different era again. The TS030 was one of the most technically-advanced cars on the planet, just what is it like to have the kind of kick that the super capacitor hybrid provides? And how does it compare to the older ‘full-fat’ diesel LMP1s?
“I have to say I’m pretty ‘old school’. I’m still not that happy that the rules have cut back the power we have so significantly from back in 2010. Back then we had big, big wings, a lot of power, around 900 bhp in the Peugeot, and torque like no tomorrow! It was that kind of approach that attracted me to sportscars in the first place and I’d still like that to be the rule today.
“That’s enough moaning and crying about the old days though. The lap times are still coming, even though they have cut out around 200bhp with today’s cars because the technology is moving on and a large part of that is the hybrid system.
“The kick it gives is deeply impressive. In F1 with the early KERS systems they were flimsy; they didn’t give you that much, they caused more headaches than the gains they gave. Then you come to the TS030 from that beginning and from the first test with the hybrid it was ‘wow’. It’s the most impressive thing on this machine, it’s fully integrated in the drivetrain; we cannot run without it functioning, that’s what makes this car so unique. It’s a true hybrid, not a bolt-on unit as you see in other ‘hybrid’ race cars, including F1, where you can switch it off and still run.”
There have been some real ‘moments’ at Le Mans in recent years, such as 2012 where, against all expectations, Toyota came back at the Audis and led the race. Did you think it was going to happen, did you know?
“We were better, more consistent on the tyres and Audi had to reduce their power settings a bit and that hurt their lap times a bit but they were still not consistent on the tyres so we closed in.
“I had a good stint then Nicolas had a very good stint and suddenly we were there. It was very cool but unfortunately we knew even then that it would take a near miracle for us to finish the race with the short notice we had for the programme; the car lacked development.”
Then there were the final races of 2012 when TOYOTA Racing emerged as a race winner…
“It was amazing, very cool. We came with only one car after Le Mans. We had so few spare parts. It all happened with very small resources and that makes it even more impressive I guess. We realised that we had real consistency, we were very fast but we also had more pit stops because of the fuel equivalency, and our consistency on the tyres was the key.
“The tighter and more twisty the track the more it suited the agility of our car. To take on Audi and win was a real buzz.”