Why Toyota were the real heroes of Le Mans

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Credit: Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Three minutes and 25 seconds.

After almost a day of non-stop racing, that was all that remained of the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans when the leading #5 Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima – which had looked so destined to give the Japanese manufacturer its elusive first win in the famous endurance race – painstakingly ground to a halt on the pit straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Despite the arduous nature of such a challenging race, for a car considered by many as underdogs to be driven so brilliantly for almost 24 hours by Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson, only for a turbo failure to deprive them of the success they so richly deserved while victory was in their grasp was, quite simply, too cruel.

The tweet from the Toyota team in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s race told the story in a single word: “Heartbroken.”

The history books will tell us that the number #2 Porsche of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb won the race, but the true heroes of the weekend were the trio who were denied what would have been the biggest win of their careers.

Toyota’s challenge for victory was borne from two key factors. Their car’s ability to run stints of 14 laps, compared to the 13 that Porsche could manage, and the consistency of its drivers, who were able to produce lap after lap at the same pace, while their German counterparts set times that while sometimes significantly quicker than their rivals, fluctuated wildly and prevented them making any significant inroads.

From the moment that Buemi passed assumed the lead from the sister #6 Toyota of Mike Conway with around seven hours of the race to go, the battle for victory turned into a two-horse race between the #5 and the #2 that looked like it would be settled in Toyota’s favour only when both had completed their final scheduled stops in the final half an hour.

From then on, the gap looked to have settled at around 30 seconds, and when the #2, at this stage with Jani at the wheel, was forced to pit due to a slow puncture with less than ten minutes remaining, Toyota, so often the bridesmaids with four previous second places in this race, looked to have matched the feats of Mazda in 1991 and become just the second Japanese winner at Le Mans.

If Nakajima, Buemi and Davidson’s defeat was the worst way to lose a motor race, then it could also be deemed the worst way for the #2 team to win it. To win at Le Mans is quite rightly considered the pinnacle of any driver’s career, yet for Jani, Dumas and Lieb, the nature of their success will forever be intangibly linked with the drivers whose hopes were dashed by a turbo failure.

Had Toyota’s heartbreak come with hours, rather than minutes, remaining, a fate suffered by the #1 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley, or the #2 had managed to work its way into the lead through sheer pace, then nobody would have questioned the manner of their victory. While no Le mans victory is undeserved and the winning drivers will doubtless enjoy their success as much as if they had finished ten laps clear, the fact remains that they inherited first place just when they had been well beaten.

Even more galling for Toyota was that once Nakajima had conjured his ailing machine back into life and nursed it around the final lap of the 8.5 mile circuit on hybrid power alone, he returned to the pits to find that the #5 car had been excluded for failing to complete his final tour in the maximum time of six minutes.

Rules may be rules, but given the circumstances, would anyone have begrudged the #5 team second place and a spot on the podium, particularly when third place was subsequently gifted to the #8 Audi that did little to justify its position among the frontrunners throughout the entirety of the race.

For 1,437 minutes, Nakajima, Buemi and Davidson outdrove, outfought and outmanoeuvred their way to the lead of Le Mans. That the TS050 Hybrid that had served them so well for so long could not keep going for just three more minutes makes their story one of the harshest in motorsport history.

Stephen D’Albiac

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