In an incredible twist of fate Porsche has claimed its 18th overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas was the first car to cross the finish line, after the race leading No. 5 Toyota TS050-Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima broke down minutes from the end…in a race it should have won.
All seemed to go well for Toyota Gazoo Racing until the 383rd lap. The Japanese manufacturer had led most laps of the race, with the No. 6 car leading a total of 173 laps and the No. 5 car on it’s 104th lap in the lead. But on lap 383 it suddenly slowed down and Nakajima was heard yelling he had lost power and was on the limiter. As Nakajima crossed the line he came to a halt and Jani took the lead with just three minutes and 21 seconds to go, to the delight of the entire Porsche team.
After finishing second in 1992, 1994, 1999 and 2013 Toyota was hoping for victory this time, but once again it wasn’t to be for the Japanese manufacturer. The situation reminded many of Toyota’s failed attempt to win the 1998 World Rally Championship, when Carlos Sainz’s Toyota Corolla stopped approximately 300 meters from the end, allowing rivals Mitsubishi to take the world title. Once again, a mechanical failure had taken Toyota out of contention.
In the Toyota pit box Hugues de Chaunac had tears in his eyes, seeing another potential win disappear before his eyes. Back in 2011 the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP retired from the lead with just over an hour to go, this time the feeling must have been even worse.
Stéphane Sarrazin, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi, who led 173 laps in total, eventually finished three laps behind the Porsche. With lap times averaging three minutes and 30 seconds in the final stages of the race, the gap between first and second was just over ten minutes.
Knowing that Kobayashi lost valuable seconds when he spun the No. 6 Toyota into the gravel at the Porsche Curves, before a cooling issue – possibly related to Kobayashi’s trip through the gravel – meant the car lost another nine minutes and 44 seconds in the pits, would have had a chance of winning the race for Toyota.
Instead with three minutes and 21 seconds remaining there were tears and cries of disbelief in both the Toyota and Porsche pit boxes. Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas fell on the floor as they realized they would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, while at Toyota people began to realize what was happening.
One lap later the Porsche pit box exploded with joy, while at Toyota everyone was waiting for the No. 5 to cross the line. Eventually it did, but its final lap time was too slow (according to article 10.15 of the sporting regulations) and the car wasn’t even classified. As Nakajima got out of his car the fans on the grandstand applauded him as his team supported him on his way back to the pit box.
What exactly happened is still unknown and under investigation. “We suffered a sudden loss of power. We are still investigating the precise root cause for an issue which we have never experienced previously. A full update will be issued in due course,” is what a Toyota spokesman told the press.
One thing is certain. Toyota will return to Le Mans in 2017, hoping to finally win it and become the second Japanese manufacturer ever to win the race and break the curse. Or as Akio Toyota said: “We willbe back next year, reborn, and ready to take you on with all our might. The fight is not over.”