In a dramatic final hour for Toyota, the #8 Toyota of Sebastien Buemi, Fernando Alonso and Kazuki Nakajima won the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans from their team-mates, Jose Maria Lopez, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi in the #7, who had led for much of the race but were beset by technical issues in the final hour. Third was #11 SMP of Stoffel Vandoorne, Mikhail Aleshin and Sergey Sirotkin in a largely faultless run for the trio.
Just past the hour and Kamui Kobayashi pitted the #7 Toyota for a full scheduled service, with Jose Maria Lopez climbing on board to finish the race. A few laps later and Kazuki Nakajima replaced Fernando Alonso in #8, ensuring Nakajima would meet the minimum driver time requirements. Likewise, Stoffel Vandoorne replaced Vitaly Petrov in the #11 SMP, while Neel Jani handed the #1 Rebellion over to Bruno Senna for the final hour and 40 minutes.
With an hour and half to go, Thomas Laurent handed the #1 Rebellion over to Gustavo Menezes, meaning the American would take the car to the flag.
Until the hour-to-go mark, the gaps remained consistent, but then the leading #7 Toyota slowed on track with an indicated puncture. Luckily, Lopez was near the pits so it didn’t affect the positions, apart from Alonso closing in due to the stop for Lopez. However, the lap after, Lopez had another indicated puncture along the Mulsanne Straight, slowing to a crawl for the rest of the lap and resulting in Nakajima in the #8 Toyota passing Lopez for the lead just before the Argentinian dived for the pits.
Post-race, a team spokesperson explained to DSC that the #7 the tyre sensor indicated that there was a front-right puncture just before the end of the penultimate hour. This forced the team to pit the car. When it pitted, the team changed only the front-right tyre. The sensor was then discovered to have been wrong. So they pitted the car once again, to change the rear right.
“This is not what the #7 has deserved. We thought there was a front-right puncture, now there was one on the rear. We should have changed all the tyres. We have a race now. This was not in our script. Sorry.” team manager Rob Leupen said.
Once Lopez had had all four tyres replaced, the gap was around a minute to Nakajima, a hard task for Lopez to close. Radio Le Mans speculated the punctures were ‘phantom’, instead caused by faulty tyre-pressure sensors, as was the issue with the #1 Rebellion in the opening hours.
Lopez obviously wanted the win and was setting consistently quick laps as he tried to close the gap and force Nakajima into an error. Nakajima pitted for fuel with around 27 minutes to go, with Lopez temporarily taking the lead back, but when he pitted for his final fuel stop he lost it again. When he came out the gap had equalised to 25 seconds, but with only 18 minutes to go, would the former touring car world champion be able to bridge the gap?
In the end, Lopez wasn’t able to close the gap, getting it down below 20 seconds but could not do any more, in a heartbreaking end for the #7 Toyota crew, who had led for more than two thirds of the race overall and, among other things, had set the fastest race lap around Circuit de la Sarthe, a 3:17.297, thanks to Mike Conway in the opening minutes.
This meant Nakajima, Alonso and Buemi won, with Lopez, Kobayashi and Conway in second, making it a Toyota 1-2. In third was 11 SMP of Vandoorne, Sirotkin and Aleshin, six laps behind, while the #1 Rebellion of Bruno Senna, Andre Lotterer and Neel Jani in fourth, nine laps off the winning Toyota. Rounding up the still-running LMP1 cars was #3 Rebellion of Gustavo Menezes, Thomas Laurent and Nathanael Berthon, some 15 laps behind.
The #36 Signatech Alpine team took victory for the second year in a row in the LMP2 class, with Nicolas Lapierre, Pierre Thiriet and Andre Negrao at the wheel. They were followed home by the #38 Jackie Chan DC Oreca of Ho-Pin Tung, Gabriel Aubry and Stephane Richelmi, while the #28 TDS Racing Oreca of Loic Duval, Matthieu Vaxiviere and Francois Perrodo rounded out the class podium.
The top two in the race were also the top two in both the LMP2 drivers and teams championships, finishing in the same order in the title hunt after coming into the weekend with just four points in favour of the #36 Signatech Alpine.
Picking up the story with two hours left to run, the closest LMP2 battle was the fourth place fight between Paul Di Resta in the #22 United Autosports Ligier, and Pierre Ragues in the #30 Duqueine Engineering Oreca. Over the course of the first half of the 23rd hour, the ex-F1 star managed to build the gap up from just over a half dozen seconds to 17.
Even if the Scot was clear of the Ragues-driven Oreca, the prospects of a United podium were limited; the third-placed #28 TDS Racing Oreca of Matthieu Vaxiviere was over a lap clear with an hour and 20 minutes to run.
But there was still a potential pitfall in the #22’s campaign; Phil Hanson was removed from the car four minutes short of his minimum driving time earlier in the race, meaning a driver change will have to come before race’s end.
Over the course of the four hours since losing the lead due to starter motor issues, the #26 G-Drive Oreca found itself knocking on the door of the top six once again. Job Van Uitert was on the hunt at the wheel with two hours to run, just 40 seconds back from the #48 IDEC Sport entry of Memo Rojas; the Russian-backed #26 was some two laps back a few hours prior.
The #29 Racing Team Nederland found itself in more strife, suffering a left-rear puncture with Giedo Van Der Garde at the helm.
The gap in the battle for sixth had reduced to just seven seconds, a cycle of stops and almost an hour later. The #48 Oreca was now being driven by Paul-Loup Chatin, and Uitert had narrowed the gap down to a mere seven seconds, but he owed us a pitstop.
The eventual stop saw Rusinov take over the #26. The gap was now 70 seconds; could G-Drive get back into the top half dozen in the final hour? The answer was ultimately no, with Chatin taking fifth in class for Idec Sport.
Meanwhile, with 42 minutes left to run, the battle for fourth was intensifying once more. Phil Hanson took over the #22 Ligier with an hour left to run; not 20 minutes later, the gap was down to just five seconds, but then drama struck the chasing #30 Duqueine Oreca.
Nicolas Jamin was struggling with crabbing in the #30 courtesy of a broken toe link, effectively ending the challenge for fourth, and moving the Duqueine car out of the top six. Hanson would ultimately bring home the #22 Ligier for fourth position.
With 20 minutes left to run, the #36 Alpine made its final stop. Nicolas Lapierre took the wheel for the final stint, and brought the car home for the class win.
In the end, it was a well controlled race for the #51 AF Corse Ferrari with Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra taking a comfortable win from the Porsches.
In second, around a minute off the pace was the #91 Porsche of Gimmi Bruni, Richard Lietz and Frederic Makowiecki in second. They led home their stablemates in the #93 Porsche with Earl Bamber, Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy.
Despite being outside the top positions, the Porsche duo of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen were able to hold on to take the WEC super-season championship title, adding to the manufacturer’s title for the Porsche GT team.
The final hours of the race was about managing the race and not throwing away a good result. The wheel-to-wheel battles had ended a couple hours ago and the leading contenders concentrated on lap times and not making mistakes during the pitstops.
The #51 AF Corse Ferrari made its final pitstop with 43 minutes to go, leaving Alessandro Pier Guidi with a new set of tyres and a 35-second lead ahead of the Porsche duo. Earl Bamber in the #93 was 25 seconds ahead of the #91 of Gimmi Bruni.
When the two Porsches made their last stop, the gap extended out to over a minute with a further 25 seconds between the Porsches. For the top three, it was a matter of managing the race, and for Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen at the bottom end of the top 10, it was a matter of bringing the car home for the Championship.
The four Fords continued to run in 4th to 7th with the #68 ahead of the #67m #69 and #66. The Fords had run in that order for much of the last third of the race, truly reflecting their pace in their WEC swansong. The car lacked the outright pace, often with acceleration out of a corner slowing them down
The #94 Porsche was in eight ahead of the #63 Corvette that eventually made it back out on track. Rounding out the top 10 was the #92 Porsche, some six laps off the class lead.
It was a hard end to a hard weekend for BMW. Their last race in the WEC for the time being ended for Philip Eng as pulled up without power at a chicane on the Mulsanne. Eng spent more than 1:20 to repair the car. it continued but last of the Pro runners.
The Corvette team would run into additional suspension problems, losing more time with left front issue with 45 minutes left in the race. It was wheeled back into the garage for additional repairs. The team, though was outside the main contenders.
In the end, it was the #85 Keating Ford taking the win. Having led for so much of the race, it was a tight finish, but Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Filipe Fraga took the win.
They led home the Project 1 Porsche of Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsay and Egido Perfetti. Third was the JMW Ferrari with Rodrigo Baptista, Wei Lu and Jeff Segal.
The result gave the WEC super-season championship to Team Project 1 and their three drivers.
But there were final-hour nerves. They increased for Keating Ford, who were forced to come into the pits for an unscheduled stop with just under two hours left. Team manager Bill Reilly confirmed that the ACO asked them to replace the nose section, despite it being damaged for much of the race.
Keating brought the car in and the gap to second was down to about a pitstop. Worse was to come for the Clearwater Ferrari with Matt Griffin bringing the car into the garage with a broken right-front toe link. The car had been in fourth, challenging for a podium but the problem dropped them to eighth in class.
There was also an issue for the #77 Dempsey Proton entry, with a mechanic possibly losing control of a wheel nut in the pitstop. However, no action was taken.
Then drama for the #85 leading Ford with a stop-and-go penalty for spinning their wheels at the end of their pitstop. This certainly added to the stress for the Ford team, with the penalty costing the team about 30 seconds.
Though the Bill Riley was stoic, there was immediate conjecture whether this rule has been fairly and consistently applied during the race, with pitlane reporters stating there are many tyre marks on pitlane that weren’t there at the start of the race.
After the penalty was served and with under an hour left, the gap was down to 10 seconds. Incredible to think the Ford had a lap lead during the night.
Keating would jump out of the car for Jeroen Bleekemolen to take the last 50-minute stint to see if they could hold off Jorg Bergmeister in the Project 1 Porsche.
It ensured that the JMW Ferrari could not be counted out and to within 10 seconds of the Project 1 Porsche, but it was a pitstop behind. At one stage, there were just 13 seconds between the top three.
The battle for the win, however, was going down to the wire.
Bleekemolen looked to have the race under control, extending the gap to 12 seconds on Bergmeister, with Rodrigo Baptista in the JMW Ferrari battling for the podium. The Project 1 Porsche needed a late splash-and-dash, which gave them a late scare and some hope for JMW but the podium trio was secure.
At one point in time Matt Campbell’s Dempsey Proton Porsche for the final podium spot but they also had a late race stop that dropped them down.
The WeatherTech Ferrari with Toni Vilander finishing the race took fourth and the CarGuys Ferrari of Come Ledogar fifth as Campbell had to make a late stop, dropping to sixth.
Outside the top six was the #78 Proton Competition Porsche, #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari, #61 Clearwater Ferrari and #86 Gulf Racing Porsche. The all-female Kessel Racing Ferrari would finish 11th.