The third year of a sportscar programme is really when you should be winning – and that is exactly what Toyota did in 2014.
Although the first year of their WEC campaign in 2012 could be seen as an extended test, when the TS030 was thrown into action early as Toyota stepped in at the last minute to replace Peugeot, this was undoubtedly the season Toyota needed to make it count.
With Porsche stepping back into the limelight and Audi still showing no signs of falling from their perch, the Cologne based squad needed to show their Japanese paymasters that it was a worthwhile experience.
The 2014 World Endurance Championship team and drivers crowns should do enough to stave off the threat of programme ending cuts for a couple more years, but another failure at Le Mans when victory was within their grasp will not go down well.
The TS040 was by far and away the best car throughout the WEC’s third season. With a headline figure of 1000bhp when both petrol and electric motors were firing it seemed like an irresistible force from the word go.
It was also the year that Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi came of age as two of the world’s best sportscar drivers.
The F1 refugees have established themselves amongst the top ranks of closed wheel racers, and while Buemi had set about that path from the word go it has been a new found focus from Davidson that has propelled him to the front of the field after several years of disappointment.
The pair started the season at Silverstone the way they meant to go on, dominating a tricky race despite the interference of the weather that threatened to throw the race into disarray.
Buemi and Davidson, at that time paired with Nico Lapierre in the #8 Toyota, crossed the line a full lap ahead of team mates Alex Wurz, Kazuki Nakajima and Stephane Sarrizan in the #7.
They would be followed across the line another lap later by the #20 Porsche 919, handing Mark Webber a debut podium on the German giant’s return to top level sportscar racing.
That meant Audi were absent from the podium for the first time since the championship returned.
The four rings had looked like being on par with the leading Toyotas after the #2 car managed to qualify on the front row, and they were able to match the blue and white cars in the opening exchanges.
When the rain came Audi uncharacteristically faltered. Lucas Di Grassi lost control of the #1 car, ending their race, while Leena Gade made the call to keep the second car out while the rain fell, hoping to avoid a stop.
But the strategy was ruined when the rain continued and the R18 fell further and further back in the tricky conditions.
They would eventually retire after Benoit Treluyer lost control of the car on the damp curbs at Copse. Despite his efforts to physically drag the car out of the gravel the car was too damaged to race.
From then on it was a cruise for Toyota, even some quick laps by the #20 late in the race could not halt the charge, which would only end when the red flags flew following a second, much heavier, shower.
At Spa a few weeks later Porsche and Audi would finally reveal their hands for the season.
The #14 car shocked its rivals by claiming pole position by almost seven tenths of a second, and, although they couldn’t sustain that pace come race day, it was a sign of what was yet to come from the brand new car.
Come race day it was Buemi, Davidson and Lapierre were again imperious, although behind them a battle raged for second.
A cooling track as the hours ticked by allowed the Audis to come back onto the front running pace.
That meant world champions Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval were able to bring the car they shared with Di Grassi home ahead of the second Toyota.
As they headed into the double points bonanza at Le Mans in June the championship seemed well stacked in favour of the TS040s.
That big race, the one all three teams want to win as much if not more than the championship, was again changed by weather conditions.
A humongous rain shower early in the race brought out the safety car, eliminated one-off #3 Audi and left the championship leaders in the pits after Lapierre had spun into Marco Bonanomi and taken them both into the wall.
When the safety car was eventually withdrawn the absorbing fight that had been developing between the leading cars was ended, the same way it had been silenced at Silverstone.
Audi and Porsche could do nothing to hang on to the #7’s pace and Wurz, Sarrizan and Nakajima pulled imperiously further ahead as the hours went on.
But then disaster struck. Just as light was arriving on Sunday morning Nakajima came to a halt. A fire in a wiring loom leaving him stranded by the side of the road, just a couple of miles from the pits, where mechanics were ready with a running repair.
The lead would swing between the rest of the LMP1-H cars through the rest of the race, each one suffering mechanical dramas at some point until, finally, with just two hours to go Porsche relinquished the lead for the last time.
That left Andre Lotterer, Treluyer and Marcel Fassler to take their third victory in four years at La Sarthe, followed home three laps later by the sister R18.
As the cars headed away for the soon to be shortened three-month break before Austin that left the #2 crew amazingly in control of the championship, thanks to their double points victory.
The field reconvened in Austin in September with Audi determined to make their lead pay, and, thanks to the third intervention by the rain in just four races, they walked away in an even stronger position.
In what my colleague Tom Taylor aptly described as a “monsoon of biblical proportions ” car after car was caught out by the suddenly soaked circuit.
In a short space of time both Toyotas and the #20 Porsche would spend time off the circuit, although they all recovered it left the Audi pair out front on their own, the race determined in the #2’s favour by a better tyre choice.
At the mid-point of the season, and in spite of all the early indications, Audi had taken up their usual position in control of the World Endurance Championship.
The next two races, while providing little action of note, would reset the championship in favour of the #8.
Now on their own after Lapierre’s unexplained departure from the second half of the season, Davidson and Buemi set about restoring their championship hopes.
In Fuji they dominated on home soil, both Toyota’s locking out the top two positions by over a lap from the Porsche pair, and crossing the line even further ahead of the struggling Audis.
Lotterer, Trelyer and Fassler trundled home in sixth, last of the hybrid runners, as the R18s struggled for top speed on the long Fuji straight, their choice of just 2MJ of hybrid power coming back to haunt them in a big way.
Shanghai would again be a race dominated by top speed, and again Toyota were dominant, taking a second consecutive 1-2 while the #14 Porsche again consigned Audi to a finish off the podium.
This was also the race that Toyota managed to outwit the others in race strategy, showing how far the Oreca run squad has come since their struggles in 2012.
A quick thinking pit stop as the safety car came out for a collision between the KCMG LMP2 car and a GTE Ferrari left the Toyotas at the back of the field, but no longer needing to come in late in the race for a quick stop.
They carved their way through the field and were barely headed after easily retaking the lead early on.
The only real excitement came from the in team battle between the two Audis. Needing a final stop Andre Lotterer pushed the #2 R18 hard to build up a big enough lead over Tom Kristensen to secure a consolatory fourth spot.
That meant the #8 crew could secure their first WEC crown if everything went their way in the penultimate round at Bahrain.
Come that penultimate round they would cross the line a lowly 11th, but Audi’s failure to garner enough point saw the drivers’ title fight over with one round to go.
The race was won by the #7 car of Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrizan and stand-in Mike Conway, but it was the #8, delayed by an alternator problem earlier in the race, that clinched the title.
Behind them Porsche were continuing their second half of the season surge, locking out the rest of the podium and forcing the Audis into fourth and fifth, and out of the championship fight.
Toyota again played the strategy game perfectly as the #7 car was brought in early to negate the need for a late race splash of fuel and finally clinch their first race victory of 2014.
That meant the final race at Sao Paulo was a formality, with Toyota clinching the manufacturers title to go with the driver’s crown they won a couple of weeks before.
Davidson and Buemi came home in second, and the departing nine-times Le Mans winner Kristensen waved goodby from the bottom step of the podium
But the most significant moment of the day came when three men in white stepped onto the top step.
Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Leib stepped out of Toyota’s shadow to clinch Porsche’s first victory since their return and fire a warning shot to the teams for 2015.
LMP2 was a rather sad affair in 2014, the failures of Strakka and Millenium make the grid through the season reduced the car count to four and left the fight between G-Drive, SMP and KCMG.
G-Drive dominated, but due to a failure at Le Mans were unable to clinch the title despite their four wins and six podiums from eight races.
The title instead went to Sergey Zlobin and the Russian SMP squad. They were only able to win one race all season, but thanks to it coming at Le Mans that huge points haul was enough to see them across the line.
Due to a quirk in the scoring they still claimed full winners points in France despite finishing well down in their class. Those points would seem them through the entire season to victory, a situation that may need looking at for 2015.
In the GT ranks the action was, as always, close throughout the season, but ultimately it turned into a relatively easy championship win for Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander.
The AF Corse pair, running free of Giancarlo Fisichella’s help in 2014, claimed four race wins, double that of anyone else, and clinched the big one in June to allow them to finish over 30 points clear of Porsche’s Fred Makowiecki.
Porsche had looked worryingly good at the start of the season in Silverstone, but, while Makowiecki was able to finish every single race in the points they wouldn’t claim another win until Bruni and Vilander were eliminated in a first lap shunt at Shanghai.
Behind them Darren Turner and Stefan Mucke’s Aston Martin challenge was blunted by an aging car, although the pair had a stonking second half of the season to claim victories at COTA and Sao Paulo.
In GTE Am the title was clinched by an Aston Martin, as the #95 “Dane train” steamed its way to the title with either victory or second place in every race of 2014.
Kristian Poulsen and David Heinemeier Hansson never really looked troubled through the season as team mates Pedro Lamy and Paul Dalla Lama fell by the waside, unable to match the consistency of the #95.
Behind them only one other set of drivers made it through the whole season. The proton competition Porsche of Klaus Bachler, Khaled Al-Qubaisi and Christian Reid only able to find the podium twice while completely outgunned by the factory backed Astons.
Next year we gain an extra European round in Germany to help plug the summer gap and it remains to be seen if a revised 919 Hybrid can continue Porsche’s surge forwards, if Audi can regain their former might and what Nissan will bring to the party.