It’s fair to say that Sunday’s win at the Le Mans 24 Hours has been a long time coming for Japanese marque Toyota. The brand has raced at Le Mans since the twilight years of the Group C era, coming close to victory multiple times, but until today, has been unable to score the all-elusive win.
Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso and Sebastien Buemi, all first-time Le Mans winners too, were masterful during the race, and while they didn’t have to push their No.8 Toyota TS050 HYBRID to the limit for considerable portions of the race (partly because the privateer competition quickly faded), they didn’t let the pressure of the occasion get to them.
For Nakajima, the win was extremely significant. Becoming only the third-ever Japanese driver to win Le Mans was one thing, but to be in the car for the finish alleviated the heartbreak from 2016, when a sudden loss of power on the penultimate lap stole the win away from him and teammates Buemi and Anthony Davidson.
“It’s great to be here finally, it’s been a long time coming!” he said. “I’m really speechless, but I have great teammates and Toyota gave us a very strong car. Finally we finished without any issues on either car. We all deserved to win, we had a bit more luck I guess.
“To win this race has been a dream of Toyota’s since 1985, and there are so many guys still here that have been involved in the project so long, I’m so proud to be here to represent them.”
At the end of the race, he said he was calm, though he wasn’t able to complete the last lap without thinking about the oh-so-close moment two years ago.
“I think I was more calm at the end this time,” he continued. “I was happier to be in the car rather than watching the car from outside, my teammate [Buemi] can prove that. I’m sure that especially after the experience – Seb was close to having a heart attack! – so in the car it was difficult, but, I of course thought about it, but all the team managed to keep focus until the end of the race, until the checkered flag. I believe that brought us the victory.”
Buemi admitted that the aformentioned penalty cast doubts in his minds that winning the race was possible. The Swiss, who won the 2014 World Endurance Championship with Toyota, says this win tops that, and is the highlight of his career so far.
“I think this is definitely the biggest win of my career. I struggle to realize to be honest because I was watching Kazuki in the car the last few laps and I could not forget 2016. So at the end, to finally see the car crossing [the finish line] it was something really special. All the preparation that goes behind that day, all of us, all six drivers, we’ve been driving for many days, in the nights, and finally when you win it, it’s something really big.
“Clearly at some point I got a penalty because I was too quick under full-course yellow, and at that time I handed over to Fernando with a two-minute deficit. But when I woke up it was around 40 seconds. He did amazing job to get us back in the race.
“The car balance changed a lot, we had a better balance towards the end, the car definitely wasn’t as fast at the start. But, I have to congratulate car No.7, they also did an amazing job this weekend.”
For Alonso, it’s a very different feeling. Despite not being involved in the team’s previous near-miss, the win still meant a great deal. Alonso’s only wins since the 2013 F1 Shanghai Grand Prix have been the 6 Hours of Spa earlier this year, and now the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend.
While winning the Indy 500 is going to be a far from easy task, winning Le Mans this weekend puts his desired ‘Triple Crown’ in reach.
“An amazing feeling,” said Alonso, whose strong pace in his night stint helped erase a two-minute deficit to the No.7 Toyota after Buemi was penalized for excessive speed in a designated Slow Zone.
“Maybe still a little bit in shock because we were so focused on the race, so stressed at the end watching television – I’m not used to watching my car racing, I’m normally in it – so it was quite tense 24 hours with the two cars within one minute more or less for the whole race.
“Right now trying to enjoy every single second of this moment and tomorrow will be time to relax.”