A stunning dash for the line, earning Irvine, the 28-year-old grand prix driver from Northern Ireland, second place, just feet ahead of Thierry Boutsen, yielded scant consolation for his camp.
Irvine, taking a break from Formula One duty with Jordan-Hart, Italy's Mauro Martini and the American Jeff Krosnoff had enjoyed the reliability to match their consistency for nearly 22 and a half hours and, for most of that period, held the advantage.
Then, suddenly, the Toyota came to a halt on the pit straight, and Krosnoff leapt out to tend to the stricken machine. He had diagnosed a gear-linkage problem and, although he was able to engage a gear manually and coax the Toyota all the way round to the pit, a subsequent 12-minute stop for repairs dropped them down to third place, behind the Dauer pair, all hope of the win evaporated.
Irvine sat patiently in the cockpit as the crew went about their work, before exploding on the track in earnest pursuit of second place. He used the whole of the 8.5- mile road, plunging deep into corners to line up his attack and eventually take Boutsen.
Victory, however, went to the other Dauer, driven by Yannick Dalmas, of France, Italy's Mauro Baldi and the American Hurley Haywood, who cruised home with the cushion of a one-lap lead. Fourth was another Toyota, followed by a Nissan, with Derek Bell, making his farewell performance, sixth in the Gulf Porsche.
Irvine said: 'It's amazing where you find the reserves when you need them. I had to go for second but when I lost my third gear I thought that was it, but I was determined to get there and made a desperate dive through. I was seriously hacked off to be down to third after all we've done but at least it was a nice way to finish second. I didn't know what was going on at the end, it was just a nightmare, with all that traffic and all those flags, and I presumed the race was over only because there was nowhere else to go.'
Irvine had predicted the main competition would come from the Dauer
Porsches, categorised as GT entrants and enjoying a 50 per cent fuel load advantage per stop, though as fast and potent as prototypes. The regulations dismayed the authentic Group C runners and the genuine Grand Touring teams alike, and yet, it has to be said, succeeded in sustaining the contest and presenting a gripping finale.
Baldi savoured his moment. He said: 'We honestly didn't think we'd be on top of the podium because we came here to win the GT class. But you always have the hope of winning the race and now we're here, it's fantastic.'
The second Dauer Porsche led into Saturday evening, only for a tyre blow-out to sabotage its course, relegating it to sixth and condemning it to a long haul back through the night. The demise of the Courage Porsches, extensive repairs to the other Toyota and the gentle decline of Bell's Porsche brought it down to a straight fight between the Irvine and Baldi squads and that gear-linkage failure tilted the balance.
Bell, who returned here for the 24th and, he says, the final time, chasing a record-equalling sixth victory, settled for a sentimental finish and climbed into the cockpit for the last half-hour, accepting the acclaim of the crowd all around the circuit.
Bell, 52, said: 'There's room for lots of young guys out there now. I've had the best period in sportscar racing. I just don't need to feel this awful anymore. I had tears in my eyes out there and the crowd were just wonderful. But yes, that's the last time I go out on to that race track.'
LE MANS 24 HOUR RACE Leading final positions: 1 Y Dalmas (Fr), H Haywood (US), M Baldi (It) Dauer Porsche 344 laps (ave speed 122mph); 2 E Irvine (GB), M Martini (It), J Krosnoff (US) Toyota 1 lap behind; 3 H Stuck (Ger), D Sullivan (US), T Boutsen (Bel) Dauer Porsche +1 lap; 4 S Andskar (Swe), G Fouche (SA), R Wollek (Fr) Toyota, +16; 5 S Millen (NZ), J O'Connell (US), J Morton (US) Nissan 300ZX +27; 6 D Bell (GB), R Donovan (GB), J Laessig (Ger) Kremer Porsche +28.Reuse content