Le Mans 2010 and Peugeot were in control. Favourites over Audi to win the 24 Hours, events were going their way even after a broken suspension put one of the 908 diesels out early on. But like buses, disaster came in threes as one by one engine problems put paid to the other cars. All retired leaving some in the French team in tears as Audi mopped up with a clean sweep of the podium.
One of the Peugeot drivers that year was Anthony Davidson and it’s an experience that has haunted him since, serving as a reminder nothing is given at Le Mans. So, even though his current employers, Toyota, go into this weekend as clear favourites after winning the opening two races of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship, the Briton is keeping a close check on his expectations but naturally his hopes are high.
“I think it’s Toyota’s best chance to win,” he tells The Huffington Post UK, “and we’re going into the race with two strong cars, two strong driver line-ups and for the results we’ve shown this year and the speed of the car, I’m pretty convinced we’ll have the speed to match the competition.”
Davidson currently leads the WEC standings with teammates Nicolas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi after victories in the six-hour races at Silverstone and Spa. The team is unbeaten in three races now, so confidence is high. But – and there is always a ‘but’ – this is a race four times longer than any other on the WEC calendar.
“In terms of reliability, speed and overall strategy we really hit the sweet spot in Spa. Hopefully that can carry on into Le Mans. But it’s such a long race. Even if you’d won five races in a row and been two or three seconds a lap faster than any car the entire season it’s still not a given that you’re going to win that race. I’ve been there, in 2010 in that very position at Peugeot when we had four cars – four cars! – that should have won the race and none of them did. They all retired.
“So, I’ve seen it go from looking so good to everything crumbling around you. I’m going into this with my eyes wide open and expecting the unexpected… It’s a race that keeps you humble, you cannot be confident. Too many things can go against you.”
This is Toyota’s third attempt at Le Mans since its return to top level sportscar racing and on current performance, its best chance yet of an overall win. Last year, Davidson’s TS040 Hybrid ran Audi close, finishing just one lap behind, and the 30-year-old believes the 2014 car now has the speed to complement its reliability. However, he admits their wins this year have not been strolls in the park.
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“Last year we had every box ticked in car #8, luck was on our side, the drivers did a good job, no mistakes in tricky conditions and the traffic was kind to us. We had everything right, we had the blueprint set there to win the race but the one thing missing was the speed of the car. So, for this year if we can just repeat what we did last year, I am sure we can win the race.
“Although we seem to be firing just at the right time as a team going into Le Mans… we’re up against strong competition in Audi and Porsche and it’s been pretty clear from the start Porsche’s main focus for this year has been the big race in France. We’re always looking out for those guys.
“It’s not like we’ve walked away with the races, it hasn’t been easy pickings. We’ve had a bit of luck as well.”
The Japanese team took a 1-2 at Silverstone after Audi misjudged the weather conditions and crashed out, with new entrants Porsche taking a well-earned third place on its debut while at Spa last month, Audi recovered to claim second behind Toyota. Davidson was surprised at the lack of pace shown by the reigning world champions in that race but knows not to underestimate a team that has won 12 Le Mans in 14 years. The former Formula 1 driver understands Toyota must focus on its own race and hope everything else falls into place.
“It’s a race that has to come to you, you can’t force it. It just unfolds the way it unfolds and if you’re in the right place at the right time and if you’ve got the speed of the car there to match the lack of bad luck that you could get at any time then you’ll win.
“You don’t need good luck, you just don’t need bad luck.”
The Le Mans 24 Hours starts at 2pm BST on Saturday