LE MANS, France
Did hackers cost Toyota the victory in the 2016 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race?
That’s the question a lot of insiders in the sport were asking, as the Toyota team tried to figure out what caused its #5 TS050 Hybrid to conk out while leading, with one lap to go.
“Think about it,” said a source from another team. “They were running fine – flawlessly the whole race – and suddenly, with about six minutes to go, the car stopped.”
At first no one could figure out what happened to the Toyota. It just lost power in the waning minutes of the twice-around-the-clock timed event. Driver Kazuki Nakajima pulled over and tried to get the car going again.
After a couple of minutes, he was able to restore enough power to limp back around the race track. But he stopped just after crossing the start-finish line on what would have been his victory lap. The archrival Porsche team swept by, and went on to claim victory after taking the lead for the last lap.
Speculation was that something failed in the Toyota’s turbocharger, or a system related to it. But there was no official confirmation of that until many days later, when Toyota issued a statement:
“Car #5 suffered a technical defect on a connector on the air line between the turbo charger and the intercooler, causing a loss of turbo charger control,” the statement read. “The team attempted to modify the control settings to restore power and this was eventually achieved, allowing the car to complete the final lap. However, it was achieved too late to complete that lap within the required six minutes.” That resulted in the car being excluded from the running order at the finish.
But identifying the problem was the easiest part of solving the problem. Understanding why it happened proved maddeningly inexplicable.
The part didn’t fail. It just stopped working. The team was able to reboot its computer systems and restore function to the part. What, however, had caused it to malfunction in the first place?
“Currently it is not clear exactly why this failure occurred, as we have verified the process used to produce the part here in Cologne,” said a team spokesperson at its headquarters in Germany. “Further analysis is required to determine the root cause. It is clear that the issue has no link whatsoever to the engine issues experienced at Spa earlier this season. Comprehensive investigations are underway at [team headquarters] to determine the precise reason for this issue with the aim of establishing countermeasures to avoid any repeat in the future.”
A Toyota representative contacted about the hacking theory had no comment.
But it is theoretically possible to hack computer systems in vehicles. This has been dramatically demonstrated recently in road cars. But there has been no publicly acknowledged case of computers on a race car being hacked – especially during an event.
So what happened? There are only questions; not answers.
The mystery remains unsolved.
June 24, 2016