Rumor has it that Mazda, as the only Japanese automaker to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, has a pre-written letter ready to congratulate Toyota should it ever become the second. Despite what seemed like a sure victory, that letter will remain in a Hiroshima drawer for now, after Toyota lost its lead with five minutes left in this year’s race.
Launching its charge on Circuit de la Sarthe in a pair of TS050 prototypes, the #5 and #6 Toyotas took off to an early lead and dominated the position for most of the day-long contest. Even early on it seemed victory was assured, as the Toyotas ran consistently and surefootedly. The TS050s were even sipping petrol efficiently enough to refuel every 14 laps to Porsche’s 13 and Audi’s 12.
“I think Toyota’s going to finally win it this year,” said Dave Yuan, JNC‘s resident Le Mans watcher and Mazdafarian, as we dined over macaroni and cheese. This was in hour six. The #5 Toyota — driven Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima— continued to dominate the position throughout the night, holding off the lead Porsche 919 and their teammates in the #6 Toyota TS050.
Dave was up until 4am Pacific time writing Part 03 of his Mazda 787B Le Mans epic, and even as he signed off the Toyota was still leading with seemingly with two hours remaining. But as we know, anything can happen in racing, and today, anything did.
I woke up to Dave’s last message of the night: “And ~2 hours left… I think Toyota will really win it this time.” Then I googled it.
In the last five minutes of the race, with Nakajima driving, the Toyota TS050 lost power and came to the halt on the last stretch. The Porsche, running 1m24s behind, caught up to snatch the win.
Nakajima did get the car started to finish the final lap, but by then it was too late. And to rub salt in the wound, the lap was not completed under the mandatory six minutes, earning the Toyota an NC (Not Classified, which is one notch above but effectively the same as a DNF).
The #6 Toyota TS050, driven by Stéphane Sarrazin, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi, came in second, though it would have placed first if not for a spin three hours from the end. It was Toyota’s fifth second-place finish.
For Japanese fans, it was a particularly heartbreaking, as it would have marked the first time a Japanese car won with a Japanese driver behind the wheel. Japanese cars have won (Mazda 787B), and Japanese drivers have won piloting non-Japanese cars (Seiji Ara in the Audi Sport Japan R8, Masanori Sekiya in the Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing McLaren F1 GTR) — all on the 25th anniversary of the first Japanese car to win overall.
An Audi R18 rounded out the podium in 3rd place. This marks Porsche’s 18th Le Mans win. An Alpine Nissan powered by a VK45 won the LMP2 class.
Images courtesy of Toyota.