Toyota has finally done it. After decades of trying, and coming close so many times, it has won the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. In the process, Toyota joins Mazda in becoming only the second Japanese manufacturer to win on the hallowed French ground.
Winning the race, after a near perfect run from the moment the Tri-color was waved on Saturday afternoon, was the No. 8 TS050 HYBRID crew of Kazuki Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso. The car completed 388 laps of the circuit over the course of the race, and crossed the line a lap clear of the rest of the field. All three drivers were faultless, pushed hard when they needed to, kept their cool under the pressure of the task at hand and as a result, were rewarded with the ultimate prize in sports car racing.
The headlines here write themselves: Toyota winning is enough of a storyline, but along with its victory, there are plenty of other notable milestones reached. For Fernando Alonso, it was a fairytale win in his first attempt racing at Le Mans, the Spaniard now owning two of the wins (Monaco and now Le Mans) required for the elusive ‘Triple Crown’ he wishes to earn in his career.
“It was quite a tense 24 hours — right now I’m trying to enjoy every single second of this,” 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. “I found a good rhythm with the traffic and got lucky on a couple of laps. Sometimes when you are lucky, you spend two laps then unlucky. But my night stints were good; they suited my style. Together with Seb and Kazuki we tried to stay calm throughout.
“It’s a shame the 24 Hours of Le Mans only happens once a year. They should hold it every two or three weeks!”
Nakajima becomes only the third Japanese driver to win the Le Mans 24 Hours — the last being Seiji Ara in 2004 and first Masanori Sekiya in 1995 — and puts the heartbreak of the 2016 race behind him.
“It’s a great feeling, finally!” he declared. “I have really good teammates and Toyota gave us a strong car. Finally, we finished the car without any issues. We deserved to win the race — we had a bit more luck than the other car.
“At the end I was more calm. I was happy to be the driver in the car rather than watching!”
Buemi, meanwhile, is just the fifth Swiss driver to take the win, and Alonso, remarkably, is the second-ever Spaniard to finish first overall, the other being Marc Gene in 2009.
Second in the running order was the sister No. 7 car, which also had a near-perfect run, the car leading for much of the race before the No. 8 stormed to lead in the 16th hour and went unchallenged for the remaining hours. Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi all drove well, but ultimately were unable to match the pace of the No. 8 toward the end, fading away and off the lead lap.
The car did suffer a late scare, when Kobayashi missed the message about pitting in the penultimate hour and had to run half a lap on the pit limiter to make sure he had enough fuel to make it back.
Aside from that — and the two 10-second stop-and-go penalties later handed out for running a 12-lap stint — it was a very metronomic run. By finishing second, and making it a historic, emotional 1-2 for the marque, it means that Toyota has now finished second six times at Le Mans, since 1992, twice in the Hybrid era, twice in Group C era, and once in 1999.
The only disappointment was the lack of competition for the team throughout. Toyota may have enjoyed its cleanest ever run at La Sarthe, but even early in the race, before the privateer runners began to drop back due to issues, the Equivalence of Technology rules somewhat artificially prevented any sort of direct racing between the hybrids and non-hybrids.
The privateer field fell a lap down after just three hours, and unfortunately forced the fans trackside and at home to have to root for poor luck and misfortune for the front-runners to spice up the action. The closest a privateer car came to leading the race, was at Turn 1 at the start.
Finishing on the final step of the podium was the No. 3 Rebellion Racing R-13 of American Gustavo Menezes, Thomas Laurent and Mathias Beche, the trio rightly jubilant to have finished first of the eight privateer cars, and crucially, ahead of the sister No. 1 car which came home fourth with its far more decorated driver line-up of Bruno Senna, Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer.
Rebellion’s R-13s didn’t have a trouble-free run, as both cars hit relatively minor trouble at various points throughout the race. But getting both cars to the finish, 10 and 12 laps off the winning car, and ahead of the other cars (all of which had a far more extensive pre-season test program) was nevertheless a big achievement.
“We had a great time, we worked hard. It’s been a real experience,” Menezes said. “It was difficult to match the pace of the Toyotas, so we concentrated on running our own races. We had small issues, had to go in the garage, but the boys kept us calm and we got it home. To get on the podium and the fastest privateer is the biggest first step.”
Behind the Rebellions, it was a real race of attrition, only one other car finishing, the others all retiring at various points in the race.
The other car to cross the line, remarkably, was the No. 5 TRSM Racing Ginetta G60-LT-P1, which completed 289 laps through the 24 hours in a race, let’s not forget, that marked the car’s competition debut.
Charlie Robertson, Mike Simpson and Leo Roussel and the highly-motivated crew in the garage powered through the various problems that hit the car during the race to bring it home after the sister car’s race ended early, grinding to a halt on the Mulsanne Straight during the night. It wasn’t the run that six months ago the team would have hoped for, but after the trials and tribulations of the team’s issues since the pre-season Prologue, this will feel like a win — and rightly so.
The rest of the field didn’t make it, the most heart-breaking of the lot being the No. 11 SMP Racing BR1 of Jenson Button, Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Alehsin, which retired in the final hour after the engine blew with Button in the car. It would have been a top-five finish for the crew, which hit trouble in the opening stages of the race and lost more than two hours with two major spells in the pits.
The sister car didn’t fare much better, the car’s race ending at the Porsche Curves in spectacular fashion after Matevos Issakyan went flying into the tires backwards — before the engine blew while the Russian was trying to get the car back to the pits.
DragonSpeed’s BR1 and the ByKolles CLM failed to make the finish, too, Ben Hanley and Dominik Kraihamer having big offs at the Porsche Curves respectively, ending a tough race for both teams.