The history books will show Porsche as winner of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours. But they won’t show how agonizingly close Toyota came to ending its hoodoo at La Sarthe.
Toyota had a first 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in the bag. Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima looked home and dry even before a puncture for the chasing Porsche with just 10 minutes remaining doubled their lead to more than a minute. In fact, they’d been taking an ever-firmer grip on the race over the final four or five hours.
The hoodoo that had cursed Toyota when it was on course for victory at Le Mans in 1994, ’98, ’99 and 2014 struck again, this time with an agonizing five minutes remaining. A technical defect with an air line between the turbocharger and intercooler robbed Nakajima of power on his penultimate lap, allowing Neel Jani to sweep through to victory aboard the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid he shared with Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas.
The Japanese driver stopped on the start-finish straight and managed to recycle through the car’s electronics to get going again, but in one final ignominy his No.5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid was listed among the retirements. Its final lap had been outside the six-minute maximum allowed by the regulations.
Victory for Toyota in the 84th running of the 24 Hours would have been the perfect way to bury past disappointments at the Circuit de la Sarthe. This was a classic Le Mans in which Toyota and Porsche were brawling all the way, a race that would have been remembered even without that final twist.
The battle at the front came together after the fourth and final safety car of the race at the end of the 17th hour. Buemi had passed teammate Mike Conway in the No.6 Toyota shared with Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi immediately after the race went green again, while Jani was less than a couple of seconds behind in third.
The Toyota had the advantage when it mattered on Sunday. The Porsche had been quicker during the night, but as the temperatures rose in the morning the two cars were equally matched, with the TS050 at least equal to the 919, if not a tad faster. That, combined with Toyota’s strategy of an extra lap on a tank of gas compared with its rival, turned the tide of the race.
Porsche was backed into a tactical corner from which it would not fight its way out. The team had to put the No.2 onto the same 14-lap fuel strategy as Toyota – starting in the final quarter of Lieb’s final stint – to avoid a late-race splash ‘n’ dash. That came with a performance penalty. At the same time, it started quadruple stinting its tires for the first time in the hours of daylight in an effort to negate the Toyota’s strategic advantage.
“When it became clear that it was going to be difficult to beat the Toyota, we had to try everything possible strategy-wise,” said Porsche LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl. “There wasn’t any other choice.”
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