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Le Mans 24 Hours: Wrapping Up LMP1, The Birth Of The ‘Toyota Years’?

Post-race analysis of the top class

The 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours saw Toyota take a very deserved and dominant 1-2 and therefore a second, consecutive victory, but it was a somewhat surprising final hour that led to #8 triumphing over #7. The pair of TS050 Hybrids ran without even a single visit inside the garage for either car. This victory was a crucial step to achieving the Japanese manufacturer’s stated aim of creating a new era in Le Mans history that will be called ‘The Toyota Years’ and imbuing the connotations of racing DNA enjoyed by Ferrari, Porsche and Audi.

There were numerous lead swaps between the Toyotas into the night, some of which appeared a little contrived. The fact that Conway set the fastest lap, a 3:17.297, on lap four, also suggested that there wasn’t truly an enormous amount of pressure on either Toyota. At times they did appear to be nearly flat-out, however, and they were as spectacular as any car lapping La Sarthe at sub-3:20 pace will ever be. The #7 broke clear during the morning because it had the luckiest breaks with safety cars. Many in motorsport say that you make your own luck and in #7’s case, they got it by having the best pace at the crucial time and also managing to run the longer pitstop strategy.

It was only in the run-up to the final hour that Jose Maria Lopez had to obey team commands and pit for a reported front-right puncture. Or at least that is what the car’s tyre-pressure sensors apparently highlighted. The car was sent back out after a single tyre change, but the team then determined that it was a rear-right puncture. Lopez was called back to the pits again and this time all of the tyres were changed. As Lopez recovered cautiously to the pits on that second occasion, the #8 of Kazuki Nakajima retook the lead, which was to the tune of a minute by the time #7 rejoined.

There was some anticipation about whether or not #7 would be allowed back into the lead after such a cruel event, but the #8 crew only backed off a little and went on to secure their second (and consecutive) victory at the 24 Hours. Double F1 champion Alonso’s 24 Hours of Le Mans record will, therefore, read: “Raced twice, won twice, became champion.” There was naturally suspicion from some quarters about the weight of such headlines influencing the outcome of the race, but the team were very clear that this was simply bad luck for the #7 crew, who would have been deserving winners and who had all at Toyota’s sympathies.

Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso all, therefore, celebrate their second Le Mans victories and become world champions, an important addition in particular to Alonso’s increasingly rich and varied palmares.

After the race, Buemi said: “Somehow, it was a difficult race. We entered it knowing that we could also lose the championship so somehow, I drove the entire race thinking ‘let’s try to increase the pace to fight with car #7’. After five laps, we realised it would be nearly impossible. Somehow in the race, we became better but they were the quickest during the entire race.

“I would have been really happy to finish second [ultimately] but what happened to them is really hard. When it happened to me and Kazuki in 2016, it was really hard, too. I am really sorry for them. It’s motorsport. It was a tough race with 61 cars in the end. It’s tough with the presence of a few amateurs. You don’t want to damage your car and you want to be at the front. With car #7, you really had to push hard. I’m happy we did not do any mistakes and that the race chose us today.”

Lopez in the #7 added: “I first want to congratulate car #8. They did a fantastic season. They pushed us to our limits and we became better thanks to them. It’s a tough and cruel race. History shows this. I can’t really say what happened at the end of the race. What I know is that we had kept a new set of tyres for the end to make it safer. I stopped and I changed it. I was taking care and being cautious when taking curves.

“After half a lap, I had a message saying I had a puncture so I came in. We changed one tyre yet I still had a puncture! The pressure was very low [in the tyre] so I could not go any faster than 100kph, which is slow on a 13k track. I pushed as hard as I could, but it was too late to come back. I am really proud of my team-mates. Nothing could help us get better right now except maybe if car #8 [drivers] gave us their Rolex (he laughs). Only maybe…”

Elsewhere, the DragonSpeed BR1’s (above) reliability was frankly woeful and team owner Elton Julian was vocal in his criticism of the car that gave them absolutely no joy at all and was an early, if somewhat painful, retirement. The ByKolles also fell by the wayside in the night and never challenged the SMP and Rebellion cars, all of which showed moments of brilliance.

Both SMP and Rebellion went through the classic Le Mans rollercoaster of emotions. SMP ultimately won out and took the final overall podium place (SMP’s and BR Engineering’s first overall podium) in the #11 (above) by staying out of major trouble, which couldn’t be said for any of the others. The #17 was eliminated by a crash for Egor Orudzhev in the Porsche Curves during the night.

The #3 Rebellion (above) was incredibly plucky following an astonishing overtake around the outside of the Porsche Curves, executed by the exceptional youngster Thomas Laurent, which appeared to have made them a shoe-in for third place. Half a lap later, though, the car inexplicably speared hard right into the barrier on braking for the second chicane, causing what appeared likely to be race-ending damage.

The team miraculously sorted and sent #3 back out in less than four minutes and they proceeded to chase down SMP once more. The #3’s race then began to unravel once more around daybreak with a three-minute penalty for a tyre identification administrative error, then a spin for Gustavo Menezes, then repeated brake problems put paid to any remaining glimmer of hope.

So #1 (above) was the highest of the Rebellion finishers, in fourth overall, but this crew had lost far too much time through a suspected puncture, a loose wheel nut and a spin (all in the opening three hours) ever to mount a challenge for the podium, barring a collapse for any of the other cars. They pounded round in hope but ultimately fell three laps short.