Heartbreak and tragedy had summed up the run of luck that Toyota had experienced at Le Mans over the last few years, but the grey clouds of Le Mans past finally lifted when Sebastian Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso finally secured the win for the Japanese manufacturer at the 2018 edition of the world’s greatest motor race.
Toyota Gazoo Racing dominated the event and the big ticket signing for this year, Fernando Alonso, kept the media attention on the team as he ticked off fastest lap at test day, pole position and outright victory – and all as a rookie on his first visit to La Sarthe!
Critics may lament the 1st and 2nd place finishes for the Toyota TS050 as only being made possible by lack of other main manufacturers providing hybrid competition and that the rest of the LMP1 field of non-hybrids were held back by regulations – but nobody can deny that Toyota have done their time and put in the graft required to win this epic race. Because of course, you have to beat the race first before your opponents on track and Toyota knows more than anyone that Le Mans can throw all sorts of surprises your way.
Toyota’s attempt at winning Le Mans began in the mid -1980s with teams operated by the likes of Dome. They took class wins in the early 1990s but looked really healthy for the win in 1998 and 1999 when the team entered the purposeful and aggressively styled GT-One. Major tire blowouts and mechanical failures handed the victory to BMW and Porsche back then. But perhaps the most heart-rending moment came in 2016 when Kazuki Nakajima’s car stopped on the pits, right in front of thousands of fans, with electrical problems on the final lap of the race they were about to win. The shared anguish at that moment in the tribunes was palpable. Fitting then, that Kauki Nakajima would be the one to pilot the car to the chequered flag to take the win this year and also that he stopped in almost the same place as he stopped in 2016, but this time after the chequered flag and voluntarily to pick up Buemi and Alonso for a victory drive down pit road with his victorious team mates.
There was some doubt as to whether this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours would be worth watching at all after Porsche’s departure 12 months ago, left Toyota as the sole manufacturer. Even then, Toyota themselves had to be persuaded by the ACO, FIA and others to remain in the series, resulting in the World Endurance Championship round in Sao Paulo being moved so that Alonso could take part.
The Toyota prototypes, which by the way are built in Cologne Germany, proved infallible over the weekend and qualified pole despite a messy qualifying session interrupted by rain, red flags and seemingly endless slow zones on track. The nearest Rebellion LMP1 car to the Toyota’s qualified 4 seconds shy, proving that they would be waiting, vulture like throughout the race, waiting to pick at the carcass of the Toyota’s if any of their previous bad luck dared to re-occur.
The SMP Racing LMP1 car driven by the popular Brit, Jenson Button followed behind. In LMP2 IDEC Sport claimed pole after Loic Duval in the TDS Racing car was penalized for failing to stop at scrutineering lights.
In GTE Pro, Porsche were looking strong with 4 works cars wearing historic livery. No.91, the quickest qualifier with Gimmi Brunni at the wheel wearing the blue and white ex-Rothmans livery and the No.92 wearing the Pink Pig livery of the 1971 Porsche 917/20. Both liveries had allegedly being chosen by a ballot between the drivers.
BMW were a new feature of GTE Pro this year fielding a pair of impressively quick, stunningly designed and eerily quiet BMW M8’s.
One disappointment in GTE Pro this year was the performance of the new Aston Martin Vantages that could barely keep pace with the slower GTE Am class below them, let alone their rivals in GTE Pro. The cars did look superb however and all Brit fans of the race will be hoping that lessons had been learnt this year ready for 2019. Porsche was first in GTE-Am with the Hollywood star, Patrick Dempsey’s team taking the honours.
Amongst the 60 cars on the grid, an LMP2 team that captured hearts and minds was that of Jumbo sponsored Racing Team Nederlands Dallara, spearheaded by 62 year old Jan Lammers who finished the race this year, precisely 30 years on from his win with the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR9’s in 1988 – a momentous achievement.
Tennis star Rafael Nadal waved the cars off on Saturday at 15.00 after having the flag delivered by the French Parachute Regiment who zip lined out of a helicopter. Drama ensued immediately with Andre Lotter’s bodywork detaching from the Rebellion after contact at the Dunlop chicane, which sent the Dragonspeed LMP1 car spinning and dropped the Rebellion way down the order after a pit stop was required for a new nose cone that robbed Lotterer of all pace and hopes of keeping up with the Toyota’s in the opening stages.
The Toyota’s remained dominant whilst others fell by the wayside, the SMP Racing BR LMP1 car of Jenson Button hit mechanical issues after just 5 hours and remained out of contention for the rest of the race, finally retiring less than an hour from the chequered flag with a lot of lessons learnt for the team. The first big crash went to the ByKlles ENSO CLM, which fell victim to a common issue at Le Mans, hitting a slower GT Am car, which pitched Dominic Kraihamer into the barriers.
One feature of this year’s Le Mans was the revised Porsche curves. This section of the track is a set of very fast left-right-left sequences, which are taken almost flat with just a hint of lift on entry. This year they had been modified with bigger run-off areas of gravel and tarmac to replace the narrow concrete passageway between barriers of previous years. The effect this had was to heighten the bravery of many drivers, which, for a fair few drivers, meant some pretty nasty shunts and an early plane home. One such driver was Mateevos Isaakyan who crashed heavily into the barriers during the night in the No.17 SMP BR Engineering LMP2 car.
Penalties were another feature of this year’s race. As if contending with floors falling apart on both Rebellions wasn’t bad enough, the No.1 was penalized with a stop and go for running longer than the regulations allowed on one tank of fuel. Only Hybrids can do 11 laps between fills. For a race that is supposed to be about endurance and efficiency, this regulation seems quite odd.
Toyota didn’t get away scot-free either though. The number 8 car picked up a penalty for Buemi failing to slow in a slow zone on the track, where the limit is 50mph whilst Marshalls clear away debris or fix barriers.
Then the number 7 car received penalties for exceeding stint length whilst Kobayashi was focused on catching the sister car and forgot to stop!
Whilst Toyota did as we expected and marched away with the win, the nearest Rebellion finishing 10 laps behind, this made the win for them no less deserved. The team’s star Fernando Alonso seemed to slot in right at home in sports car racing alongside Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima and is now on track for the Triple Crown, just the Indy 500 left to win! The No.7 Toyota saw Mike Conway, Joe-Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayshi finish in second just a lap behind. The No.3 Rebellion was 10 laps behind in third and saw Mathias Beche join Gustavo Menezes and Thomas Laurent on the podium, with the fourth place Rebellion a further two laps behind that.
There were plenty of battles up and down the field in the other classes, especially GT to keep the inebriated fans circuit side happy throughout the 24 Hours and regardless of some odd regulations and obvious issues with attracting manufacturers to race, Le Mans remains the most epic motor race in the world, the ultimate test of man and machine.