“Is it a show or a competition?”
That is the question Toyota Gazoo Racing team director Rob Leupen has posed ahead of the 100th-anniversary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans following a late change in the Balance of Performance between manufacturers that left it overshadowed by Ferrari during qualifying at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
On Thursday night in the Hyperpole session, Toyota's pair of GR010 Hybrids could only qualify third and fifth, ending the Japanese manufacturing giant's hopes of a record-breaking seventh consecutive pole position as Ferrari locked out the front row on its first appearance at Le Mans with the new 499P.
Antonio Fuoco's best time in the #50 Ferrari Hypercar of three minutes 24.451s was a massive 1.469s faster than the best of the Toyotas driven by New Zealand's Brendon Hartley.
Toyota is unbeaten across the opening three rounds of the World Endurance Championship this year, in a season when Ferrari, Porsche and Cadillac have all returned to the top tier of sports car racing.
It is also pitching for a sixth consecutive victory at the world's greatest endurance race, but now feels its campaign has been undermined by a surprise late change to the BoP, the means by which different concepts are equalised in the WEC.
The changes, which included a 37kg weight increase for the Toyota and 24kg for the Ferrari, were announced without warning nine days before the race that begins on Saturday at 3pm CET (midnight AEST).
When asked by Speedcafe whether the move could be construed as a means of adding success ballast, Leupen replied: “I would not contest that.”
But will it lead to a more competitive race to please the bumper 300,000-plus crowd who will descend on La Sarthe to witness the centenary event? “Potentially they get a better race, but [only] potentially,” replied Leupen.
“We know the others are not so far away. You get more show, but is it a show or a competition? Is it a sport? This is the question everybody has to answer for themselves.
“For us, it's important that its [management is] predictable; for us, it's important that respect is there for everybody and this is handled in a way that we put on a sport, not a show.”
Toyota's frustration is not so much the added weight, but the process by which the decision was taken to increase it.
“There is, within the regulations, always a kind of force majeure situation which can be created,” explained Leupen.
“Apparently, the FIA and ACO saw themselves in that position to make not a so-called platform BoP [change], but make a manufacturers' BOP to let racing be allowed.
“We think within the tools we have you could have done it differently. If you are working with partners is this the right approach?
“Why did it have to be this way? Why not in a more open process, to get people around a table and try to get an agreement? We had a lot of opportunities, they denied this and suddenly 10 days before the race…”
Leupen also suggested the move has come under the influence of Ferrari lobbying. “From my point of view [whether] somebody has been here for three races or for 60 races, the level of experience is there,” he said.
“So you nullify this to more or less bring the others much closer by what they have done today. As a sportsman, I have a problem because we are here for sport and we have to be predictable in how we manage the sport. That's why I have an issue with this.
“We would like to work in a different way and not for someone who has been there for three races say ‘We are not happy, we are too far away' and say ‘Okay, we will give them a bit more'. We don't drive against people who don't know the job.”
Leupen does accept, however, that Toyota's Hypercar experience and level of success still make it the perceived favourite heading into the race.
“We are still in a competitive position, we think,” remarked Leupen. “We are in a situation where we will definitely take the opportunity to show that we are a true racing team and will fight for the overall victory.
“We are still amongst the favourites. Yes, I was surprised the gap from us to Ferrari was bigger than anticipated. Also, we did not do a perfect qualifying at all, but we have shown good consistency on the long runs.
“I read that the international press still sees us as favourites, but from what we were shown (in qualifying) we are a bit less confident based on the performance Ferrari has unleashed.”
Bad weather appears likely to be a factor, with storms and heavy rain predicted on Saturday afternoon and into the evening.
“We have thunderclouds coming, it will be a typical Le Mans and all challenges will be there,” he said.