Cruel and utter heartbreak has befallen Toyota Gazoo Racing, which ground to a halt from a near certain first win at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans in the final 5 minutes, the second-to-last lap, of the 84th running of the French endurance classic.
Porsche Team has repeated with the new trio of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb in the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid, who capitalized on the Toyota’s unexpected demise.
The win was in the offing for Toyota, which via either its No. 5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima or the sister No. 6 car of Mike Conway, Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobyashi looked poised to secure its first Le Mans win, and become the second Japanese manufacturer to win the French endurance classic (Mazda in 1991, incidentally celebrating its 25th anniversary).
And then, it wasn’t.
Both cars dominated the race, first with a mix of running longer on stints and Conway’s ironman efforts in the first half of the race. Davidson then proceeded to take the No. 5 car back into contention through a storming stint in the night.
Once the No. 5 car moved into the lead in the 17th hour, and largely held it from there… until the bitter end.
The No. 6 car’s hopes were dashed by a couple late race spins, and a later trip into the garage in the final hours that cost it a few laps.
And then with just under five minutes remaining, Nakajima, who’d been entrusted to bring the car home to the finish, radioed in that he had a loss of power. He limped the car home through Indianapolis, Arnage, the Porsche Curves and onto the front straight, then stopping on the front straight before trying to get back going.
The No. 2 Porsche blew past and that was all set and decided.
In one word, Toyota tweeted everything:
The failure to cross the finish line then took them not only out of a win, but out of a finish altogether – the car fell to an unclassified 45th overall at 384 laps completed.
Of little solace was the fact the second Toyota was promoted into second.
Audi made it onto the podium in third, albeit not on pace but on sheer survival of the No. 8 Audi R18 with the trio of Loic Duval, Oliver Jarvis and Lucas di Grassi driving. It at least gave Audi’s Leena Gade, the team’s engineering ace, a podium visit in her final Le Mans with the team before she moves on to other opportunities. It also ensures Audi has graced a podium every time it’s been to Le Mans since its return, but it’s marked the first time since its first win in 2000 the manufacturer has gone two straight years at Le Mans without winning (2003, Bentley, 2009, Peugeot and 2015, Porsche).
Beyond the overall result, there were still plenty of key stories that emerged this race.
Ford secured its ultimate triumph for what it set out for, winning on the 50th anniversary of its memorable and legendary 1-2-3 finish in the 1966 24 Hours.
The No. 68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team US Ford GT of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais secured the win as Fords dominated the GTE-Pro class, and emerged at the head of a race-long scrap with Ford’s primary rival, the No. 82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE of Toni Vilander, Giancarlo Fisichella and Matteo Malucelli.
Risi finished second, yet was subject to a possible post-race penalty assessed as the car was called in needing to fix its leader lights in the last 20 minutes of the race.
Time penalties were issued post-race to both cars, but it didn’t affect the outcome. The No. 68 Ford received a total of minute and 10 seconds assessed for two separate penalties, while the Risi Ferrari was docked 20 seconds for not adhering to the black and orange flag assessed to serve that penalty.
Behind the top two were the two remaining Fords that didn’t hit trouble. The No. 69 Ford ended third with the trio of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Le Mans debutante Scott Dixon, just ahead of the No. 66 Team UK entry of Olivier Pla, Stefan Muecke and Billy Johnson.
Bourdais wasn’t the only IndyCar driver of note to star and win. NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell has won in GTE-Am, co-driving with Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler after a clean drive in the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari F458 Italia, and after beating the No. 88 Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR.
Ultimately, while Patrick Long, David Heinemeier Hansson and Khaled Al Qubaisi delivered a valiant fight, they were just slightly off the Ferrari’s pace, and “DHH” later fell to third behind the No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari driven by Emmanuel Collard, Rui Aguas and Francois Perrodo. Collard made a pass of “DHH” in the final 20 minutes.
Another near flawless drive occurred in LMP2, with the rebadged Oreca 05 – the Alpine A460 – taking the class win courtesy of a flier from Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes in the No. 36 Signatech Alpine A460 Nissan. The trio have finished fifth overall, and Richelmi and Menezes have now won in their Le Mans debuts.
The No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 05 Nissan (Rene Rast, Will Stevens, Roman Rusinov) and the No. 37 SMP Racing BR01 Nissan (Victor Shaitar, Kirill Ladygin, Vitaly Petrov) have completed the podium, Strakka Racing having come up just short in the No. 42 Gibson 015S Nissan with the veteran trio of Nick Leventis, Danny Watts and Jonny Kane.
Quite an incredible effort was turned in by the Garage 56 entry, the SRT41 by OAK Racing Morgan Nissan, with quad amputee Frederic Sausset joining co-drivers Christophe Tinseau and Jean-Bernard Bouvet in the modified car finishing the race in 38th place overall and completing 315 laps in the race.