Toyota just don’t do boring. Three years ago a maiden Le Mans 24 Hours victory was cruelly snatched away from Kazuki Nakajima and the No 8 car when it broke down at the start of the final lap. A year later they once again came up short as all three cars expired early in the race. But after finally getting their Le Mans monkey off their back last year, you’d be forgiven for thinking their luck had changed.
You would also be wrong, at least for the No 7 crew that led for nearly 12 hours uninterrupted but crucially did not lead the last one.
Instead, the No 8 Toyota of Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Nakajima, the man who crossed the line, was the beneficiary of the latest chapter in the team’s baffling Le Mans finishes. With a 2:17.362s lead and just an hour to go, Jose Maria Lopez’s No 7 car suffered a front-right puncture that the team spotted, addressed immediately and replaced to keep everything on course, only for the Argentine to make it halfway round the 8.467-mile circuit before reporting yet another puncture.
The conspiracy theories started the moment that Nakajima passed the ailing Lopez to take the lead as the final hour commenced, and despite his best efforts to catch the slower No 8 from a minute back, the three-time World Touring Car champion could not reel in the newly crowned World Endurance Championship LMP1 champions.
But was it a conspiracy? No, not if you believe Toyota, who made the embarrassing admission afterwards that they changed the wrong tyre on Lopez’s car, removing one Michelin in perfect working order by accident and leaving on the deflated one in one of the most inexcusable mistakes Le Mans has seen.
Alonso will leave Toyota now a three-time world champion, adding to his two Formula One titles, while Buemi and Nakajima join the Spaniard in becoming two-time Le Mans winners. Was it deserved? Not in the slightest.
The No 7 had been the standout car all week, setting the fastest time in first qualifying, despite a head-on collision for Mike Conway, and topping the tables come Thursday night to start from pole. Despite swapping the lead through the night with the No 8, as the safety car process once again caused controversy in hindering some and helping others, there could be no doubting that in the hands of Lopez, Kamui Kobayashi and particularly Mike Conway, they were the fastest car for 24 hours. And even when victory started to slip away from them, it was still the No 7 setting the pace, with only the unthinkable luck of two punctures in two laps costing them victory.
Somehow Toyota had managed to make themselves the story, despite being anonymous for the first 23 hours, which sadly took the attention away from a number of brilliant battles throughout the field.
The No 11 SMP Racing showed the power of patience as the Russian outfit watched its two main rivals in the two Rebellions sabotage their own races, with the No 1 taken out by reliability issues and No 3 crippled by two offs from Thomas Laurent and Gustavo Menezes, the two young talented chargers who still have a bit to learn around the Circuit de la Sarthe.
With their teammate, the No 17 SMP Racing BR1, crashing out during the night in spectacular circumstances as Egor Orudzhev lost control in the Karting Esses, the team of Vitaly Petrov, Mikhail Aleshin and Stoffel Vandoorne took the non-hybrid LPM1 victory and the third step on the podium.
The LPM2 battle swung heavily in favour of the No 26 G-Drive shortly after midnight after a safety car period split it and the No 36 Signatech Alpine Matmut, the pair having proved inseparable over the first third of the race.
It was the GTE class who vented their frustrations with how the safety cars were deployed last year, with caution periods hindering some and helping others that virtually destroyed Corvette’s challenge in 2018. But this time around the LMP2 category felt the wrath of the safety car farce as the Alpine got caught out when following the No 95 Aston Martin’s high-speed accident, which led to a 90-second gap opening up when the pair had been nose-to-tail for the entire race.
Having had LMP2 victory snatched from their grasp last year when they were disqualified 24 hours after the chequered flag dropped, G-Drive were going to leave nothing to chance as Jean-Eric Vergne, Roman Rusinov and youngster Job van Uitert powered away at the front, ensuring that the gap to the No 36 remained large enough to keep them out of touch throughout the subsequent safety car periods.
But not for the first time, the G-Drive challenge fell apart, with an alternator failure costing them 20 minutes in the pits and plummeted them to eight in class. With the G-Drive Racing Aurus out of the way, the team of Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao and Pierre Thiriet maintained their one-lap advantage over the No 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca through the final quarter of the race – their task aided by a puncture suffered when Gabriel Aubrey was at the wheel of the Jota Sport-run car cost them a lap to the No 36. After missing out on the feeling of standing on top of the podium last year, Lapierre could not hold back the tears on the cooling down lap as he claimed his fourth LMP2 victory at his fourth attempt.
The team of Aubrey, Stephane Riquelme and Ho-Pin Tung took the team’s third podium finish in three years – and the fourth for Jota – by taking second, with the TDS Racing No 28 Oreca of Francois Perrodo, Matthieu Vaxiviere and Loic Duval recovering from an early setback behind the safety car to fill the third step of the rostrum.
The multi-manufacture battle that qualifying promised with five different cars in the top five positions began like a house on fire as the GTE Pros provided the bulk of the epic 35 overtakes on the opening lap of the race, and by the seventh hour the top eight were split by just 8.593s.
But the safety cars through the night played right into the hands of the No 92 Porsche and No 51 AF Corse Ferrari – which had worked its way up from 12th on the grid – with Corvette once again incensed as they suddenly found themselves 97 seconds behind the lead battle that they were in the middle of just a handful of laps previous.
Over the course of the next five hours, the Porsche and Ferrari swapped places at the front of the class with every pit stop as the rest of the GTE field scrambled to try and get back into the mix, only for a cracked exhaust to consign the No 92 to a 20-minute repair in the garage. By the time Kevin Estre returned to the track, they had dropped to 12th and their challenge was done, and although Estre and teammate Michael Christensen – joined in the car by Laurens Vanthoor – sealed the GTE Pro drivers’ championship, the title-winning team were left to make do with 10th place.
Having seen the No 71 sister car retire with engine failure, Ferrari took their foot off the gas slightly to allow the No 63 Corvette back into the mix, only for their challenge to end once and for all when Jan Magnussen spun off in the Porsche Curves upon a restart three hours from home. And after keeping the challenging No 91 and 93 Porsches at bay, Daniel Serra, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Britain’s James Calado powered to a deserved victory for the AF Corse outfit, with the WEC Porsche team of Richard Lietz, Gianmaria Bruni and Fred Mackowiecki taking second in front of the IMSA trio of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Patrick Pilet.
The race proved one to forget for Aston Martin, as a crash before midnight for the No 97 car was followed some 20 minutes after by a huge off for the No 96 of Marco Sorensen. Their No 98 GTE Am car also registered as one of the first official retirements when Paul Dalla Lana pulled off the track early on. Having taken GTE Pro pole position with the No 95 car, the team were incensed to have the Balance of Performance adjusted against them on the morning of the race, with group chief executive Andy Palmer raging against the “unfathomable” decision taken by the ACO during the race.
The second Corvette was also an early casualty as a collision with the No 88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche of Satoshi Hoshino fired Marcel Fassler into the concrete wall in the Porsche Curves at speed, though thankfully the Swiss escaped unhurt – albeit with a 7,000 euro fine and six penalty points after stewards blamed him for the accident that swayed Hoshino into withdrawing from the race after four incidents in the opening three hours.
While the sight of the home favourites Alpine taking victory delighted many of the natives, the real fairy tale story came in the amateur class.
Following the withdrawal of the pole-sitting No 88, the sole remaining Dempsey-Proton, the No 77 of Matt Campbell, Christian Reid and Julien Andlauer, picked up the mantle to lead throughout the early stages.
But lurking throughout behind them was the No 85 Keating Motorsports Ford, the only privately-entered GT that proved to be the one to watch in the manufacturer’s farewell display.
As the Chip Ganassi Racing entries had to contend with fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh in GTE Pro, the Ben Keating-ran GTE Am car led for an incredible 18 hours, only for the No 56 Team Project 1 Porsche to reel them in over the final 90 minutes.
The battle ignited with 75 minutes remaining when Keating himself received a stop-and-go penalty for wheelspinning away from his penultimate pitstop, which put the charging Jorg Bergmeister onto his bumper with both having one stop remaining.
But Keating did exactly what was needed of him, handing the Ford over to teammate Jeroen Bleekemolen to guide them home with a beautiful final stint and seal victory for him, Felipe Fraga and Keating’s privately ran team.
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