The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley scored Porsche’s 19th overall Le Mans win, in the most improbable fashion, fighting back from 52nd to first in what turned out to be an attrition-filled slog of an LMP1 race. For Bamber and Bernhard, it marked their second Le Mans wins, while Hartley scored his first.
With only five factory entrants there was always going to be the risk that an odd result would be possible, and that’s exactly what happened. All five entrants hit major trouble, in what was a race that ultimately came down to which team could spend the least time in the pits.
Only two were left at the end; the #2 which had loss of drive from a front-axle problem during the fourth hour, which forced the car into the garage for an extended period of time, and the #8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson, which underwent a full hybrid system change early in the race, losing it over an hour. The teams pushing hard to get their wounded cars back into the race proved key, as the other three all retired out on circuit.
Toyota’s TS050s – with their impressive raw speed – led the opening hours of the race, and had a 1-2 with the #7 leading the #8 before its issues with the #9 within shouting distance after an early stop for repairs for accident damage; but both the #7 and #9 would fail to survive the night. The extreme heat played havoc with the prototypes in the race, but more so, the hybrids. The #7 had a clutch issue, which prevented the car from getting back up to full speed after a safety car in the 10th hour of the race.
Kobayashi discovered the issue at the very start of the lap, leaving him no choice but to try and limp home with no power. The car crawled, but couldn’t make it. After multiple stops and starts it eventually stopped out at Maison Blanche, sending shockwaves through the Toyota garage.
That heartbreaking sequence, which saw Toyota lose its leading car, was then exacerbated by the #9’s woes. Nicolas Lapierre spun into the #25 Manor Oreca heading through the right hander up to the Dunlop Bridge, a fuel cut causing the car to go careering off into the gravel. The Manor Oreca was an on-the-spot retirement, while the Toyota continued. Lapierre did his best to try and return to the garage, but the left-rear was damaged heavily, the deflated tyre at one point igniting the bodywork. The Frenchman, like his teammate in the #7, was forced to give it up, and leave the car stranded, along with Toyota’s hopes of winning the race overall – as the #8 was way too far back in a recovery drive.
Toyota’s misfortune promoted the #1 Porsche of Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy to the lead, the pair going into cruise control with only LMP2s left in the top 10 to compete with them to the win. But it wasn’t meant to be for Porsche’s leading crew either.
Having zero issues early in the race left the trio to build up a considerable lead, which extended to 13 laps over the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca in second. But Lotterer hit trouble with just a few hours remaining in the race, slowing at the start of the lap, and eventually grinding to a halt down the Mulsanne Straight. It left just two limping hybrids out on the circuit.
From then on it became a chase, as the #2 crew fought their way through to try and retake the overall lead for Porsche – off the Jackie Chan DC Oreca which became the first LMP2 car ever to lead Le Mans. The eventual move for the win was a formality, just before the final hour, but it was nevertheless a thrilling conclusion, with the winning drivers having capped off a comeback drive from last in LMP1 and almost last in the overall race standings.
The #8 Toyota also made it home in the end, but only just inside the top 10, the time spent in the pits proving costly. Buemi, Nakajima and Davidson took second in LMP1, but lost out on second-place points by finishing behind a handful of WEC LMP2 runners that are also eligible for the Drivers’ Championship. It was another bitterly disappointing Le Mans for Toyota, which once again had the speed, and for the first time, strength in numbers too, but couldn’t get it done.
There was only one LMP1 Privateer entry in the race this year – the ByKolles CLM – but it failed to feature, the car retiring on the first lap of the race with a combination of engine troubles and accident damage after Oliver Webb tangled with the #9 Toyota at the start. Had it had a reliable run to the finish, it most certainly would have taken the win, but for the Austrian team, merely cruising to the finish would have proved difficult enough in the conditions had it not had its early trouble.