Rarely has a single hour, so relatively early in the Le Mans 24 Hours, thrown up so much drama, so much incredulity, and so much heartache.
While the #9 Toyota made a routine pitstop, all eyes were on the monitors, watching the painfully slow progress of Kobayashi in the stricken #7. The weight of Japanese hopes now transferred to the only problem-free TS050, the #9, circulating in the hands of Nicolas Lapierre.
To everyone’s disbelief, Kobayashi appeared to have got the #7 moving again. The car had looked to be a certain retirement, sitting stranded in the middle of the Indianapolis complex, but then it was crawling forwards again, but it was a false hope. Frustration for the crew watching in the garage as the car ground to a halt again after negotiating Arnage corner. Once more, Kobayashi engaged drive, but progress was again achingly slow.
Then, seven minutes into the hour, it was clearly game-over for the #7 Toyota. Kamul Kobayashi was seen climbing slowly from the car. He dismissed the offers of help from the marshals, and jumped clear. He looked back towards the car for a moment, and then started walking slowly away. His shoulders slumped, but then his head came up, and he raised his arm in acknowledgement to the nearby spectators. The body language said it all – hero to zero, but rest assured, that astonishing pole-setting lap won’t be forgotten in a hurry. His race may be over, but Kobayashi’s reputation has been firmly established.
As one book snapped shut, the pages turned over in another. Here was yet more drama, but this time in LMP2. The #25 CEFC Manor Oreca, which had been running a strong fourth, was buried deep into the gravel at the Dunlop Chicane. There was clear bodywork damage and all the indications pointed towards a major incident.
Simon Trummer was out of the car but looking shaken. Then the cameras picked out Nico Lapierre’s #9 Toyota, suddenly limping through Tertre Rouge with bodywork flailing around a left rear puncture. Had there been collision between the two? It was impossible to be sure, but the Toyota was evidently in trouble, and it was getting worse. As Lapierre worked to bring the car back towards the pits, the damaged rubber started to flail and disintegrate, causing even more damage to the rear bodywork. Lapierre was under pressure to get the car home, but surely not at all costs? He needed to coax it home, in as few pieces as possible, but it was not to be.
Matters deteriorated rapidly as this incredible race took another cruel turn of fate. The #9 car pulled up on the inside after Arnage, the first flames of fire licking greedily around the rear. The tyre had broken a hydraulic line, but Lapierre managed to engage traction, taking it as far as the Porsche Curves where he pulled over onto the side of the track. The left rear wheel had been utterly destroyed, and with it, most of the surrounding bodywork. The safety car was immediately deployment to recover the stricken car.
But this was a story that hadn’t yet run its course, and at 1:25 there were gasps as the #9 Toyota sparked back into life once again, and resumed it’s sloth-like crawl. There was evident relief on the faces of the highly-charged pit crew, some of whom ran forwards to the apron in anticipation of their wounded charge. This was uncomfortable viewing, and it wasn’t about to get any easier. The car slowing again, and then stopped. Tantalisingly, but with bitter cruelty, the #9 Toyota was within visible distance of the pitlane entrance, but it had paused for the final time. This time, the lights had gone out.
Lapierre’s cockpit door was flung open, and in the dim glow of the circuit lighting and against the shadowy backdrop of the Porsche Curves, Nico clambered from the car. In haunting mimicry of Kobayashi’s concession to defeat, the Frenchman trudged disconsolately away, looking back only briefly before seeking solace behind the concrete wall. In a matter of minutes Toyota’s fortunes had been turned on their head, and all the team’s eggs were now focused on the sole remaining TS050; the recovering #8 in the hands of Anthony Davidson, ten laps down on the second-placed #2 Porsche but still running third.
Remarkably, from underdogs and the first of the front-runners to encounter problems, Porsche had regained the upper hand, but this remarkable race was not yet even half way run.
At 1:47 the safety car was withdrawn and racing resumed, with the #1 Porsche promptly diving down the pitlane for a routine-looking visit. Tandy remained in the cockpit while the 919 Hybrid was refuelled. Exactly on the hour, Toyota’s surviving hope, the #8, followed suit.
The end of a dramatic eleventh hour saw significant changes to the top five in LMP1, but continued dominance for Rebellion in LMP2.
1. #1 Porsche 919-Hybrid – 170 laps
2. #2 Porsche 919-Hybrid – 152 laps
3. #8 Toyota TS050 – 141 laps
4. #9 Toyota TS050 – Retired on 160 laps
5. #7 Toyota TS050 – Retired on 154 laps
1. #13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca – 161 laps
2. #31 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca
3. #38 Jackie Chan Racing
4. #35 Signatech Alpine
5. #40 Graff Racing
Briefly, in GTE Pro, James Calado’s #51 AF Corse Ferrari was still leading GTE Pro from Johnny Adam’s #97 and Richie Stanaway’s #95 Aston Martins. Just 5 seconds covered these three cars before a 1 minute gap to Patrick Pilet’s works Porsche #91 in fourth. Miguel Molina’s #71 AF Corse Ferrari was closing the gap, just 4 seconds, to fifth.
In GTE Am, Dries Vanthoor pressed on for JMW, his class lead in the Ferrari 488 GTE looking generous. Breaking news as the hour closed was Fernando Rees finding trouble on the Mulsanne straight, the Corvette moving slowly along the left hand guard rail.