Heartbreak for Toyota as late failure hands Le Mans win to Porsche
Modern endurance racing is a tough, tough game, especially if you're Toyota. Leading Le Mans with just over three minutes remaining, the #5 TS050 Hybrid looked certain to make Toyota just the second Japanese brand to win at Circuit de la Sarthe, only to suffer a catastrophic power failure. The #2 Porsche 919 streaked past the stranded Toyota, in what was a heartbreaking finish to a heart-stopping race.
There's no such thing as a quiet day at Le Mans, but this year's race was full of drama from the get-go. With the rain absolutely lashing down, teams started under safety car conditions for the first time in the race's 84-year history.
When the drivers were finally let loose, Audi showed the pace that has helped it win 13 times since 1999. Just two hours into the race, however, the #7 R18 being driven by Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer was forced to pit for a replacement turbocharger, all but ending their chances of taking out the overall win.
It wasn't just the #7 R18 struggling with reliability issues. Although it came home in third place, the #8 R18 was hampered by a brake disc issue which left it 12 laps behind the eventual winners.
Audi's success at Le Mans has been built on the back of unshakeable reliability, so the fact its campaign was again derailed by mechanical faults will be cause for concern at Audi Sport HQ.
With Audi spending plenty of time in the pits, Porsche and Toyota settled into a back-and-forth battle for the overall race lead. After an impressive stint from Anthony Davidson, the Japanese giant found itself 30 seconds clear of the second-placed #2 Porsche. That lead stretched to over a minute, and it looked as if Anthony Davidson, Kabuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi would be the men to bring the Le Mans trophy to Toyota on its 18th attempt.
But, in one of the starkest reminders that you need to run the perfect race to claim victory, a power failure left the #5 TS050 stranded in front of the pit wall. The distraught team could only watch as its hard work, and the lead accrued after 1437 minutes of hard graft, evaporated. Heartbreaking doesn't even begin to describe it.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the team at Toyota, though. The TS050 driven by Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin crossed the line in second place, having battled cooling issues through the race's closing stages. Even with the podium finish, the result clearly had the whole team feeling flat afterwards.
"Unfortunately our second position was not what we wanted," said Kamui Kobayashi. "We are here to win so I am not really happy. We showed the car has strong performance and our car set the fastest lap of the race. I feel really sorry for car #5, all the crew, drivers and engineers. They did a great race. They fought back through difficult moments and deserved to win."
Anthony Davidson was more circumspect, but still extremely disappointed with the result.
"That was an unbelievable end to such a difficult race. You couldn't have written the way it ended; no-one would ever have believed a movie if it ended like this," he said. "So to actually live through the experience is pretty hard to take, but it will make us stronger and we'll be back."
The flipside of Toyota's heartbreak was elation in the Porsche camp. The highly-fancied #1, piloted by Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley struggled with a damaged fuel pump and could manage just 13th position. But over in the #2 car, Marc Lieb, Neel jani and Romain Dumas found themselves in the right place at the right time.
With the leading Toyota stricken by the pit wall, the 919 Hybrid streaked past and crossed the line in first place, bringing Porsche the biggest prize in endurance racing for the second consecutive year.
"First of all I would like to express my respect for the sensational performance which Toyota gave in this race," said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President of Porsche's LMP1 program. "It was a great fight with them. Shortly before the finish we had settled for second place until we suddenly claimed our second Le Mans victory in a row. I would like to thank our great team in Weissach, our team here in Le Mans and all Porsche employees and fans which have supported us here."
Forgetting about the LMP1 big boys for a moment, Ford managed to get one-up of Ferrari exactly 50 years after the GT40 claimed an historic 1-2-3 victory at the very same race. The #68 GT being run by Chip Ganassi Racing overtook the #82 Ferrari with four hours left in the race, and managed to hang on for a win in the LM GTE Pro class.
The win comes after a whirlwind development period, which kicked off just last year. It's also got us even more excited for the road-going GT; a car designed to show us how Detroit thinks the modern supercar should look (and drive).
The full standings for the race can be found at the Le Mans website.