Toyota blasts “Americanisation” of Le Mans with new safety car rules

Toyota has reiterated its dismay at the perceived “Americanisation” of the Le Mans 24 Hours with the introduction of new safety car rules for the 2023 edition of the race.

Safety car leads a Peugeot and a Toyota

Instead of neutralising the race with the use of three safety cars, as has been the case in the World Endurance Championship’s blue riband event in recent years, a new procedure has been introduced this year that will see the whole field packed up behind a single safety car prior to each restart.

Additionally, any car that is behind the class leader in the safety car queue will be permitted to overtake the safety car, complete a lap and rejoin at the back of the pack, in similar fashion to the system used in the IMSA SportsCar Championship in America.

The cars will also perform a procedure called the ‘drop-back’ that will see the LMP2 and GTE Am runners separated from the Hypercars competing for overall honours.

Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon has previously made his displeasure with the new system clear, saying it risks devaluing a win by making the race “a bit of a lottery”.

Speaking to selected media, including Autosport, after the system was trialled during the official Le Mans test day on Sunday, Vasselon underlined his position and lamented what he feels is the “Americanisation” of the French endurance classic.

“The new safety car rule does not seem to us to correspond to the spirit of Le Mans,” Vasselon said.

“When you look back at what made Le Mans so great, it's precisely the opposite of this kind of artifice where, if you're not good at pitstops, if you make a mistake in strategy, it doesn't matter because the safety car will put everything back together.

“It's quite serious in terms of the state of mind: it's a big step towards the Americanisation of Le Mans and our opinion is that Le Mans shouldn't become Americanised. If it does, it's no longer Le Mans.”

Vasselon predicts that the new rules will reduce the incentive for teams to push throughout the duration of the race, creating a similar situation to IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona – with the focus shifting from building an advantage to simply staying on the lead lap ready for a showdown in the closing stages.

Safety car Exercise

Safety car Exercise

Photo by: Paul Foster

“At Daytona, you have the spectacle in the last two hours, and the rest of the time the cars just manage to stay on the lead lap and there's no racing for 22 hours,” said the Frenchman. “We're going to take a step in that direction.

“In recent years, Le Mans has been a 24-hour sprint, precisely because it was possible, with the three safety cars, to have a certain neutrality over the race. The cars that wanted to win had no respite, but now we've moved away from that.

“The impact is on risk management. In a way, it will help reliability but above all it will reduce the risk of accidents.”

Asked if he felt the other Hypercar teams held similar views on the changes, Vasselon replied: “I know that there are other teams who have the same position as us. I think there are a few who are not put off by American-style racing.

“Our opinion is really expressed in terms of the historic spirit of Le Mans. After that, it’s OK to want to change things, the world evolves, but for us this is not one of the things that should evolve.

“As for the fundamental principles of what makes us win or lose at Le Mans, we don't think they should change because they are timeless values.”

Vasselon also reiterated his belief that the previous system of three safety car trains spaced out equally around the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe offers the best compromise between not unduly interfering with the race and safety.

He said that increasing the number of safety car convoys to six could be considered to lessen the impact of cars being split up, but accepted that fewer breaks in traffic could make it harder for marshals to clear incidents in some cases.

Additional reporting by Basile Davoine

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