It was like a scene out of a movie at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: at seven minutes from the finish, the #5 Toyota was going into its next-to-last lap with a comfortable lead of 1:14 on the #2 Porsche. And then, the impossible happened when the lead car stopped on the finish line going into its final lap.
"We've dreamed about winning this race," described at the finish Hugues de Chaunac, team manager of the French team Oreca associated with Toyota since 2012 and who experienced the joy of Mazda's win in 1991. "We also had a nightmare, breaking down an hour from the finish. But not in the last lap. It's completely cruel. It hasn't sunk in yet. We were right there. This race is so hard to win. Even Porsche's boss came to see us and admitted he didn't deserve this victory."
So there it is. Le Mans always denies Toyota, despite its 44 unsucessful entries punctuated by five second place finishes (1992, 1994, 1999, 2013, 2016) with several victories lost in sight of the finish, like in 1994 when the win got away less than two hours from the end due to a gearbox linkage problem. Or in 1999 when victory evaded the favourite GT-One after a flat tyre in the last hour of the race. History repeated itself this year, but worse.
This win so hoped for, Toyota went after it right from the start by perfectly negotiating the early race despite a remarkable rain shower. Taking advantage of the problems overwhelming the #7 and #8 Audis and those of the #1 Porsche, the Toyota camp quickly found itself in a position of strength with two contenders for victory against just one Porsche and no Audis. A first alert delayed the driver line-up of the #6 which remained in its box a few minutes following an incident for Kamui Kobayashi at the karting corner. The #5 then took the lead and benefitted from less fuel consumption to make two fewer stops than the #2 Porsche and carve out a gap of more than a minute. Enough to head to a relatively easy win...you'd think. As the signal was given to Kazuki Nakajima to relax the pace for the finish, he noticed a subtle loss of power in his V6 turbo, ending in a full stop heading into the final lap. Though the car managed to cross the finish line finally, the time it took to do so exceeded the limit authorized and tossed the car outside the standings.
At the finish, even winner Romain Dumas found it difficult to rejoice. "Obviously, we aren't giving up the win, but we're sad for Toyota," admitted the Porsche driver. Same humble triumph in the Audi pit where they were enjoying an 18th consecutive podium finish. Delayed by various problems (turbo, door, hybrid system) the two R18s were never able to play even the smallest role in the race. A few minutes from the finish, Dr. Ullrich said his troops would come back stronger next year.
To learn from our failures is generally the right attitude to have when one loses. But how can one ask better from Toyota with such a perfect showing from a team for 23 hours and 56 minutes?
Watch the closing laps by clicking here