Toyota looked ready to add another 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy to its collection until the leading car lost 12 seconds and gave up first place to Ferrari, who ended up winning. The team has traced the mechanical problem that cost it precious seconds to an impact with a squirrel.
Pascal Vasselon, the Toyota team’s technical director, explained the incident to Motorsport.
“There have been some windows where we were sometimes dominating Ferrari. There is a logic behind that. Just after one of these moments where we were competitive, Ryo [Hirakawa] has hit a squirrel. It was probably not a very small one because it has done big damage to the front end,” he explained. The impact slowed down the #8 car by blocking airflow and causing the engine to run hot.
It sounds like the culprit could be a red squirrel, a species that’s common across many parts of Europe (including in the Sarthe department of France, which Le Mans is part of) and that can grow to nearly 10 inches long excluding the tail. It’s different from the American red squirrel.
Regardless, the little rodent inadvertently (we’re guessing he wasn’t hired by Ferrari) cost Toyota the lead, and potentially the race. Hirakawa pulled into the pits, where mechanics ended up having to change the entire front end of car #8. Ferrari’s #51 took the lead during the repairs. The fight wasn’t over: The two cars competed neck-to-neck at various points in the race, but a spin lowered Toyota’s odds of winning to zero.
“We had no indication of what was happening. There was nothing visible from outside. The aero figures were good. We decided to remove the front end, change it, and have a look. There was a big piece of Kevlar which was stuck inboard of the suspension, but blocking the flow of the cooler. We could remove it and keep going,” Vasselon told Motorsport.
Toyota nonetheless put up an admirable fight: Its #8 car finished second overall in spite of a different crash that cost it three minutes.