TORTURE FOR TOYOTA AT LE MANS…
…AS PORSCHE GRABS LAST-LAP WIN
Do you want to win this or not?” Anthony Davidson implored the Toyota team over the radio during the 22nd hour of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The cause of his message was, in itself, relatively trivial even though it did cost laptime – the failure to give him a countdown to the lifting of a slow zone – but with one message he summed up the anguish within Toyota.
The perennial Le Mans loser, the manufacturer that should have at least a couple of wins in this classic race by now, was nervous and Davidson’s complaint acted as a rallying cry to the team to retain focus.
It did so, but with the race in the bag the perverse gods of Le Mans offended even some of Toyota’s rivals by snatching away a well-earned victory on the penultimate lap.
Of course Toyota wanted to win Le Mans, desperately so. Four times, in 1994, 1998, 1999 and 2014 it could, and really should, have won only to be denied, often in cruel circumstances. When Kazuki Nakajima, driving the #5 Toyota with a comfortable advantage over the #2 Porsche of Neel Jani, lost power in the final minutes of the race, it quickly became clear there was to be a fifth year of infamy for Toyota. As Nakajima stopped by the line, Jani flashed past to give Porsche its 18th victory at Le Mans. All the Japanese could do was fire the car back up and crawl round the final lap on electrical power in an attempt to make the finish. But he was nowhere near fast enough to dip under the mandated six-minute ceiling for the final lap, so the #5 Toyota wasn’t even classified.
This was one of the great Le Mans climaxes, with Jani’s disbelieving team-mates Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb celebrating in the Porsche garage while those in the Toyota pits struggled to come to terms with what was happening. Sheer drama, the highs and lows of motorsport laid bare and juxtaposed in the most compelling way possible.
Those who witnessed this race will still be talking about it decades down the line. But 24 hours earlier, the scenes were very different. At the end of the fifth lap, the restless crowd in the grandstands on the start/finish straight was unhappy and not afraid to show it. This wasn’t quite Brands Hatch 1976, but the boos, jeers and thumbs downs made it very clear what the paying public thought about the race starting under the safety car following a downpour just before the off. And, more significantly, continuing under the safety car until things finally got underway after seven painfully slow laps and 52 minutes – a few laps beyond what was necessary. Everyone pitted for slicks shortly after the green flag, suggesting the fans had a point.
The crowd wanted to go racing and they got their wish. For not only did they get racing, they witnessed one of the great Le Mans 24 Hours battles as Toyota and Porsche, with a few cameos from the ultimately disappointing Audi entries, went at it hammer and tongs from start to finish.
At the green flag, things soon started to turn in Toyota’s favour. Sebastien Buemi, who started the #5 Toyota, slipped behind the two Audis at the start because his car was momentarily down on power. But then he followed in the footsteps of team-mate Mike Conway in the #6 Toyota as both carved through the order. By the end of lap eight, and with the length of the safety car period costing Timo Bernhard in the #1 Porsche and Jani in the polesitting #2 Porsche the best of the conditions to make the most of the deep-tread wets they had started on, Conway led Buemi in a Toyota one-two at the end of the second racing lap.
While Audi was destined to struggle in this race, the tricky conditions allowed it to capitalise on sound strategy. Andre Lotterer, who started the #7 Audi he shared with Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler, was the first to duck into the pits for slicks. His reward was to take the lead on lap 13. Then, things started to unravel as Lotterer had to bring his Audi R18 e-tron quattro into the pits, where it was rolled back into the garage for a turbocharger change.
“It’s not an issue we encountered during the tests,” said Audi Sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “The rain must have had something to do with it.”
The resulting 20-minute delay eliminated Lotterer, as well as fellow three-times winners Fassler and Treluyer, from contention. The Audi rejoined six laps down and 59th. While it gradually climbed the order, eventually finishing fourth, it had slipped to 17 laps down thanks to various visits to the garage, including ones to change the front discs and pads, bodywork changes and an electronics problem that led Fassler to post an 11-minute lap.
Loic Duval, who started the #8 Audi, also had a couple of laps in the lead during this phase as the race threatened to become a genuine tripartite fight. But troubles getting the Michelin rubber into the right temperature window blighted Audi’s race and the #8 slowly slid back before problems started to hit, most significantly a brake disc problem that damaged the car’s bodywork and forced a 40-minute garage visit later in the race. But by then it was already two laps down in a fair fight.
The bottom line is that Audi wasn’t really a factor. The 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours was all about Porsche versus Toyota. Bernhard, in the #1 Porsche, passed Duval for the lead in the second hour and set about pulling away from the #6 Toyota of Conway, who performed well during the first four stints of the race. The #5 Toyota and the #2 Porsche lost a little time by delaying their switch to slicks for a lap longer. The #5 Toyota also lost further ground at the fourth round of pitstops, which fell on lap 54 for Davidson. Unfortunately, a vibration led to him pitting again on lap 55 for a new set of tyres, which dropped the car back.
What followed was an epic race, with the two Porsches and the two Toyotas attacking all the way. There were times when the Porsche seemed quicker, times when the Toyota seemed quicker and, on balance, the two were closely matched. But Toyota had one trump card, which was the ability to stretch to 14 laps between pitstops rather than the 13 Porsche and Audi were doing. At each round of stops, the offset between the two Porsches and the Toyotas grew and eventually a whole stop was saved – although this took around half of the race given stint lengths in the neighbourhood of 45 minutes.
What Toyota did seem to have on its side was luck. The slow zones that regularly cropped up, in which cars cannot exceed 80km/h, seemed to favour the Japanese manufacturer. Or rather, hinder the #1 Porsche in particular. During the seventh hour, at a point where the race had settled into the lead being swapped between #1 and #6 as their pitstop timings became more and more out of sync, Toyota copped a break. Kobayashi headed into the pits to refuel, take tyres and hand over to Stephane Sarrazin at the same time as a slow zone was in effect to cover one of several incidents for the Pegasus Racing Morgan of Ines Taittinger. Sarrazin re-emerged still in the lead rather than dropping back behind Bernhard, who had been delayed by the neutralised part of the track. And this wasn’t the only example of a slow zone benefiting Toyota during the race, which served only to add to the feeling that 2016 might just be its year.
By this point, the #2 Porsche had long since made it a three-way battle for the lead, while the number #5 car was gradually being hauled back into contention by rapid stints from Davidson and Nakajima. During the eighth hour, after more slow-zone misfortune for the #1 car, Jani passed Bernhard for second place.
“In the beginning, we were able to extend our lead, but then first Mark and then I had massive bad luck with the slow zones,” said the frustrated Bernhard. “This gave us a huge disadvantage.”
In the ninth hour, Jani capitalised on Conway pitting shortly after a safety car period to take the lead with a move into Mulsanne Corner. But it was an hour of mixed fortune for Porsche, as the #1 car, now driven by Mark Webber, was rolled into the garage suffering from high water temperatures. It very quickly became clear that this was a serious problem, with the car spending most of the next two-and-a-half hours in the pits, briefly re-emerging halfway through that stint to establish that replacing the water pump wasn’t enough and that the whole water system had been damaged. The car eventually finished 13th, 38 laps down.
So with a little over a third of the race gone, this was effectively a three-horse race, albeit with the #8 Audi of Duval, Lucas di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis lurking in fourth and only a lap down. The battle between a Porsche and the two Toyotas raged for hours, although the longer the race went on the stronger Toyota’s position was, often running first and second but with the lead trio rarely separated by more than a minute and often by far less than that.
A key moment came in the 17th hour, on Sunday morning. Both Toyotas pitted under the safety car, meaning they dropped to the second group far behind the #2 Porsche now driven by Jani. But Jani was scheduled to pit for fuel two laps after the restart, and when he returned to the track he was down in third. Buemi, crucially, overtook Conway during this period. The #6 Toyota, which had spearheaded the charge, was now relegated to secondary status as the #5 car tightened its grip on the race. In the battle with Porsche, Toyota was helped by the fact Jani suffered a puncture during one of his overnight stints, which led to its driver rotation being disrupted – ultimately costing Dumas some time behind the wheel.
But this three-way battle did become a two-piece in the closing stages. The #6 Toyota had already picked up some minor damage after a brush with an unidentified GTE car overnight, and when Kobayashi lost it at the exit of the Porsche Curves and ploughed through the gravel in the 22nd hour while only 27 seconds behind the lead Toyota, and seven off the Porsche, the car was effectively done for.
Kobayashi did well to get out of the gravel trap, but the earlier bodywork damage had been made worse and after giving away a little under half-a-minute with that off in the first place, Toyota opted to bring the car in for repair work, costing the crew a total of three laps.
As for the top two, the Toyota drivers had it covered. The gap stabilised at around the 30-second mark in the closing hours, with the Porsche unable to make anything more than temporary inroads and the Toyota unable to extend that advantage. In short, in the final four or so hours it was clear that, barring disaster, Toyota was at last going to win Le Mans.
Even Porsche extending its stint length to 14 laps late on made no real difference, with its appearances in the lead now becoming vanishingly rare. Continued on page 6
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Things were going well for Toyota with only a few minutes to go. Then, with a lap to go, the screens showed the car slowed but at full throttle, in fourth gear. Over the radio, Nakajima told the team he had no power.
“Keep pushing, keep pushing, the #5 has lost power,” Jani was told, having only a few minutes earlier given up all hope of a shock win after having to stop for a puncture. Jani obliged, and was a little surprised to blast past a Toyota parked by the line on the main straight as he started his final lap.
The reason for Toyota’s problem, at the time of writing, was unclear. Toyota had lost all telemetry and was waiting to take the car back to its base in Cologne to get to the bottom of it. But the unofficial whispers were that it was related to the turbocharger – remember, that’s a new part this year after the switch from a normally-aspirated 3.7litre engine to the new 2.4-litre twin turbo powerplant. For 23 hours and 54 minutes, the engine, which was in the longer-term plan for Toyota before being rushed through for 2016 to close the gap to Porsche, had played a key part in a famous win. Now, pending the team’s investigation, it seems it might have proved to be the weak link reliability-wise.
As for Porsche, there was a combination of jubilation, sympathy for Toyota and shock.
The race had been lost, defeat accepted – then, suddenly, this!
“We have not had the chance to understand what has happened to us,” said a surprised Dumas after the podium celebrations. “We’re all sad for Toyota. No-one was expecting that but everyone will certainly remember this race in the future. When you are given a chance of victory, you have to take it.”
Also surprised was the #8 Audi crew. Since making its Le Mans debut as a factory operation in 1999, there has always been at least one Audi on the overall podium, even if that car was sometimes run by privateers such as Champion and Team Goh. While the #5 Toyota did cross the line after 1500hrs, it was not able to be classified so Jarvis, di Grassi and Duval climbed the podium.
“I didn’t know I was on the podium until somebody called me,” said di Grassi, who finished the race. “My engineer told me I was fourth, I said ‘OK’, I waved to the marshals. Then when I stopped, a guy said you are on the podium. I said ‘no I’m not’ and I went to go back to my garage. But he said ‘come with me – podium’. It’s great after the horrible race we had.”
To put into context how bad it was, the fastest Audi lap – set by di Grassi – was 0.760s off Jani’s overall best.
With reliability problems blighting the factory teams during the 2016 World Endurance Championship so far, there had been suggestions pre-race that one of the privateer entries might cause an upset. But these proved to be wide of the mark, with the works cars monopolising the top positions.
Things started to unravel early on. The Bykolles-run CLM, which had turned itself into a bonfire during Wednesday practice and only had the chance to set a dry qualifying lap late in Thursday’s first session in the hands of Pierre Kaffer, was wheeled off the grid with a smoking engine.
It wasn’t an easy race for the car, which started life as the ill-fated Lotus LMP1. It all ended when, with Simon Trummer at the wheel, another engine problem resulted in the car ending the weekend as it started it – as a bonfire. No wonder Ollie Webb joked about hoping his hire car didn’t catch fire on the way home…
The more credible privateers were always going to be the two Rebellions. The Oreca-built R-one had proved a reliable package in six-hour races this year after intensive focus on that over the winter, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at Le Mans. The #12 car of Nick Heidfeld, Nelson Piquet Jr and Nicolas Prost hit trouble immediately, but was at least still running at the finish after a litany of problems, including two changes of clutch that contributed to the car spending almost three-and-a-half hours in the pits. As the only one of the three privateers to be classified at the finish, this was enough for the trio to climb the podium as the ‘class’ winners of the race.
“We expected to be more reliable than last year,” said Heidfeld. “This wasn’t the best race we’d had and we were lucky that the others had some problems. It wasn’t a fantastic race but it was still a class win.”
The sister #13 machine, the more fancied runner after podiums in each of the opening two WEC rounds, had a strong run for 14-or-so hours – often running ahead of the most troubled of the Audis – but it ultimately suffered badly with a fuel injection problem. The car, driven by Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Matheo Tuscher, was running at the finish but failed to complete the requisite 70 per cent of the winner’s distance to be classified after rejoining with the engine turned down to protect it to the finish.
But any disappointment felt by the minnows was nothing compared to the desolation felt by those at Toyota. In the hours after the race, nobody within the team seemed able to deal with the race’s cruel sting in the tail.
Kamui Kobayashi, on his first Le Mans appearance for Toyota, knows all about the company’s history here. When asked to put things into words, he couldn’t.
“This can only be…maybe God can say something,” he said.
But forgetting the supernatural explanation, perhaps it was Toyota ambassador and reserve Alex Wurz, a two-times Le Mans winner, who best summed it up.
“You don’t win Le Mans, Le Mans lets you win,” he said. Not only does Le Mans seem unwilling to let Toyota win, but it seems determined to torture it as well.
line to record his second LMP2 Le Mans victory in as many years, following his 2015 triumph with the KCMG team last term.
Jota’s G-drive ORECA started from pole with Rene Rast, but lost ground during Saturday afternoon’s change to intermediate tyres, then suffered a puncture and later had to serve two separate pitlane penalties.
Rast, the on-loan Will Stevens and Roman Rusinov eventually finished second, three minutes behind Signatech, Jota’s third Le Mans podium in as many years.
The team’s second car, its venerable Gibson driven by Giedo van der Garde, Jake Dennis and Simon Dolan, was eliminated in a clash with a GTE Aston on Sunday morning, with Dolan behind the wheel.
Vitaly Petrov led the #37 SMP Racing BR01 to the final podium position, ahead of Strakka Racing’s Gibson and the ORECAS of Eurasia Motorsport and Greaves Motorsport, a spread out top six covered by 10 laps.
Defending winner KCMG’S challenge was halted on Saturday evening by an electrical problem, after debris hit the marshalling system. The team retired for good in the 10th hour more than 20 laps down after ending up in the gravel following another electrical gremlin.
Porsche won Le Mans on the final lap, when Toyota stopped
Porsche trio celebrate shock win
Toyota looked assured of its first victory, until Nakajima lost power on last lap Audi struggled as the race began in wet