TOR­TURE FOR TOY­OTA AT LE MANS…

…AS PORSCHE GRABS LAST-LAP WIN

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - Photos: Jakob Ebrey, LAT

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

Con­tin­ued from page 5

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

Crowd hated safety car start, but were ju­bi­lant at the fin­ish

Tommy Mil­ner es­caped in­jury after crash­ing his GTE Pro Corvette. The car had won Le Mans last sea­son Reign­ing cham­pion Porsche was ruled out of fight by wa­ter tem­per­a­ture

Sig­nat­ech’s ORECA fought back from slow start to win

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