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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Q&A: Mark Webber

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Credit: Jim Hunter

Last week, I was given an unbelievable opportunity to speak with one of the best known Formula One drivers of the last 15 years.

Mark Webber visited the Cheap Street Church in Sherborne, Dorset, on Wednesday to take part in an event to promote his autobiography Aussie Grit.

As a news reporter at the Western Gazette, which covers Sherborne, one of my editors, knowing my passion for motor racing and who had seen that Mark was to visit the town, urged me to get in touch with the event’s organiser and try to set up an interview.

Surreal as the premise seemed, I made contact and, to my surprise, was told that it would be fine to interview Mark before the event.

As someone whose ultimate dream is to become a motorsport journalist and who counts themselves as a huge Webber fan, the idea of a 1-2-1 chat with him seemed so fanciful that I only allowed myself to believe that it would happen when I ventured into the building and shook his hand.

Below is a transcript of the full, unedited eight minute chat, where we touched upon multiple topics, including Le Mans, the current state of Formula One and his work as a pundit.

Q: Mark, the main reason you are here in Sherborne this evening is to promote your book, so I’ll start with that. How much did you enjoy putting the book together and taking the opportunity to tell your story to the public?

MW: “Well it’s not a five minute job, that’s for sure. A book is a big undertaking and probably when I got into it I thought I’d definitely opened a can of worms trying to get everything right. There’s so many side alleys you can go down in terms of pulling and constructing the whole book together and all the individuals and characters you met along the way, where they all fit in and where you introduce them, but that’s why I had good people help me.

“It’s all my words, trying to put it all out there and what I really went through, so I’m happy it’s been received well because of the fact that I think it’s brought people closer to the sport. It’s given them a nice knowledge of the sport. It is my journey if you like but it’s also a very behind-the-scenes look at the sport itself and Formula One, so that seems to have gone down well.”

Q: It’s now just a couple of weeks until Le Mans. How do you feel your preparations are going and how confident are you that you can go one better than last year?

MW: “We’re as confident as we could be with that race, but there are landmines everywhere and we’re going to try and thread the needle for 24 hours and make sure the car is there at the end and in good health. We’ve got a huge, huge week coming up, or huge two weeks coming up. We’ve got a pre-test coming up at the weekend and then another big week and the build up to the race. All the drivers are in good shape.

“We’re ready to go, we’ve prepped well, we’ve practiced pit stops until we’re blue in the face, we’ve done all the preparation which you have to do because bear in mind when you’re tired that there’s little errors that can creep in at two, three, four in the morning, so it’s a tough race and that’s why we’re really keen to do the business this year.”

Q: We saw all of the major LMP1 runners hit trouble at Spa in the last race. How much will attrition be a factor at Le Mans?

MW: “You’re right, there was a lot of attrition at Spa and that will probably be there at Le Mans, but we’re really hopeful that we won’t be part of that. We want to have a very, very boring race and try to conserve everything very well and have fuel and tyres and driver changes, and keep the car out of the garage and out of the gravel, and they’re the two key things that we’ve got to do.”

Q: As someone who has vast experience of endurance racing and Formula One, what would you say are the key differences between endurance racing and Formula One?

MW: “Obviously endurance racing’s very, very long. You race at night and you have teammates, obviously you’ve got to share the car, so that’s a huge difference straight away. Formula One is, well was, probably a bit more intense in terms of pace and pushing really, really hard for two hours, but now obviously you’ve got to look out for the tyres and nurse the Pirelli situation which obviously is not the most rewarding for the drivers at the moment. The categories have probably converged as close as they’ve ever been for pace so there’s not a huge amount of difference once you get away from the obvious ones like night driving, endurance and sharing the car, it’s pretty similar.”

Q: So with that in mind, is the WEC the best category to replicate the thrill of Formula One for you?

MW: “After F1, it was very important for me to continue for a little bit longer, and this was the best category. When Porsche ring you up, that’s one of the best phone calls any racing driver can get, that they’d love you to drive one of our cars and would you be available? I was like ‘yeah, I will be, let’s have a chat and go from there’. It worked out well timing wise for me off the back of F1 and picking up a sports car career with Porsche was sensational.

I wasn’t leaving without asking for a pic!

Q: What is your take on how the 2016 F1 season has gone so far?

MW: “Well Nico’s off to a phenomenal start. He obviously got maximum points at the start and Lewis hasn’t quite hit his straps yet, but he’s shown the flashes of pace that you’d expect from him. He hasn’t been able to convert some of his poles which is unlike him, but he’s had his fair share of unreliability as well, and Nico’s been extremely reliable, finished all the races except Barcelona and without any hiccups really apart from Monaco. For Lewis, it was a big win in Monaco and got him back up there, and Red Bull are coming back as well now. Ferrari have been the most disappointing team so far, they haven’t really hit their straps at all with Sebastian and Kimi, but I predict they’ll get their season underway in Canada.”

Q: On the subject of Monaco, Daniel Ricciardo’s someone you know well. How well do you expect him to bounce back from what happened to him there, and in Barcelona?

MW: “He’ll bounce back. It’s part of the game unfortunately, and adversity comes with it. You have to take the big right hook on the chin sometimes, which is tough, and he’s had a couple of tricky weekends where he feels that he did everything he could, and that’s why it’s a bitter pill to swallow for a driver when you do everything you can and you don’t get the result that you deserve which can be frustrating, but he’ll bounce back. He’s the form driver of the year in terms of delivering and he can’t do any more than that, so he’ll be back.”

Q: You’ve enjoyed many years in the cockpit in Formula One, but this year you’re looking at things from another angle and working as a pundit for Channel 4. How have you enjoyed that so far?

MW: “Good fun. I’m enjoying it. It’s not stressful at all, racing was stressful and they were long days, and I was being a professional in that space let’s say, but with TV it’s a little bit more dynamic, also live TV is a bit of a buzz obviously because the story’s evolving while we’re there so that’s cool. I don’t class myself as a journalist. I don’t find myself getting in there and digging and getting stories, I’m just talking about what’s happening and being a pundit, I’m in a pretty good position to talk about driver attitudes, driver skills and scenarios that are happening and what the sport throws at the guys, so that’s good to give the fans at home a bit of an insight.”

Q: You mention the lack of stress involved, so in a strange way is it more enjoyable being a pundit and not having to worry about that pressure?

MW: “I enjoy my racing obviously. That was important and I did enjoy that, but I can’t do that forever so what do I do? I like my surfboard, but I can’t do that every day of the week and I can’t make any money on my surfboard either, so I’ve got to do something else, and it’s good. David Coulthard and I get on well, we’re good friends and it’s just a good team, so we can have some fun with it, but there’s also a serious side of the sport that we’ve got to try and relay back to the viewers at home as best we can. We don’t feel we have competition, we’re not arrogant with that as a crew, we just want to keep doing better ourselves and getting the most out of the coverage.”

I have written three articles for the Western Gazette using quotes from my interview with Mark, all of which can be found here.

I would also like to place on record my thanks to Wayne Winstone of Winstone’s Books in Sherborne, who organised last Wednesday’s event and who kindly allowed me to speak with Mark beforehand.

Stephen D’Albiac