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

Maldonado out, Magnussen in: A refreshing change…

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A growing poison within Formula One in recent years has been the way in which able talents have been so readily cast aside for no other reason than the lack of contribution they have been able to make in the funding department.

Since 2010, no fewer than nine drivers, all of whom had proved themselves worthy of a place in the cutthroat world of Grand Prix racing, have been left unceremoniously dumped from the sport.

The sole reason? Simply that their pockets were not deep enough to satisfy a litany of teams who are struggling to survive in this age of rising costs, declining sponsorships and an ever-growing calendar.

Although some of these drivers list fell victim to the ruthless world that is the Red Bull Young Driver Programme, that the likes of Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Jean-Eric Vergne were unable to find drives at other outfits after they were culled by Toro Rosso had little to do with performance.

Similarly, Kevin Magnussen did little at McLaren to show that he could not cut it in the pinnacle of motorsport.

And yet, of these ‘cast-offs’, only Nico Hulkenberg managed to get a proper second chance en route to becoming arguably the best racer on the grid currently plying his trade outside a top team.

Instead, the volume of money is only increasing when it comes to earning a place in the promised land. Forgetting Pastor Maldonado, and the likes of Marcus Ericsson, Esteban Gutierrez and Max Chilton – among others – can all claim to have bought their way onto the grid at one time or other at the expense of their more talented companions.

That is why the news that Maldonado is to be replaced at Renault by Magnussen comes as a welcome relief.

In five seasons of broken front wings, rebuilt cars and a permanent pass to the stewards room, only the odd flash of brilliance prevents the Venezuelan’s CV from amounting to nothing more than a high-speed dodgem.

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The sight of Pastor Maldonado in a barrier became an all-too common one during the Venezuelan’s five years in Formula One.

It is easy to look no further than the PDVSA petro-dollars that have funded Maldonado’s career and forget that he was more than deserving of a Formula One drive when he made his debut for Williams in 2011.

An inconsistent yet occasionally brilliant junior career that earned him a reputation as a specialist around the fabled streets of Monte Carlo and culminated in the GP2 Series crown of 2010 would have made Maldonado a candidate for graduation to the top tier, even without his grotesque level of backing.

His second season in 2012 that saw the still scarcely fathomable win in Spain and a number of top three qualifying performances showed that he had the speed to survive in Formula One, if not the temperament.

And that was always Maldonado’s problem. A driver who earns his staying power in Formula One on merit cuts out the silly collisions, reckless petulance and embarrassing prangs by the time he enters his second season, but far from honing his speed and developing into the well-rounded midfield runner that he had the potential to be, he became little more than an imitation of a Wacky Races character.

It was why his move from Williams to Lotus in 2014 was met with indignation by most, why a website charting his every collision in exquisitely humorous fashion continues to flourish, and why his continued presence in a team famous for its true racing spirit has become little more than a frustration.

But where one door closes, another one opens, and Maldonado’s demise now looks set to give Magnussen a refreshing opportunity to revitalise a stalled career.

Cut adrift at McLaren for the sole reason that Fernando Alonso became available, the Dane should have had teams queuing up to secure the signature of a man who bagged a remarkable second place on his Formula One debut and proved more than an able foil for Jenson Button.

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Kevin Magnussen spent 2015 on the sidelines through circumstance more than any lack of performance.

Yet until Maldonado’s funding dried up, he was left high and dry and faced with a switch to IndyCar or the World Endurance Championship just to get some racing under his belt.

Thankfully, the buyout of Lotus by Renault has turned the financial situation at Enstone into one of rude health, and means that placing a driver of Magnussen’s quality alongside Jolyon Palmer, himself a beneficiary of high value backing, is now a reality rather than a far flung dream.

Once the transition season of 2016 is done and Renault prepares its first fully-fledged manufacturer entry since 2010, one can only hope that a second opportunity for an established driver will arise at the team.

Although not a necessity, the prospect of a French driver delivering the goods at a French team would do Renault’s image across the Channel no harm. Of the talented cast-offs, Jean-Eric Vergne, a man who proved more than a match for Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso, is another, like Magnussen, just crying out to be given a second opportunity.

Just imagine, a year down the line, the prospect of Renault signing Vergne to partner Magnussen, and in so doing securing one of the most exciting young driver line-ups on the grid.

If so, it would make a welcome, and refreshing change.

Stephen D’Albiac