Toyota has finally won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Aichi automaker broke their long-running curse at one of the world’s most prestigious races this morning, when their two TS050 race cars crossed the finish line in 1-2 position. Though it must have been satisfying to at last attain this elusive goal, in some ways the victory seems bittersweet.
That’s because this year, Toyota was the only carmaker to compete in LMP1, the race’s top class. As the only cars with factory support, the Toyota hybrids were notably faster than the rest of the LMP1 field, which consisted entirely of privateers. Porsche and Audi, its major competitors, dropped out last year after parent company Volkswagen pulled the plug in the wake of its diesel scandal.
Still, as previous attempts have shown, simply having the fastest cars and drivers is no guarantee of victory at Le Mans. Simply finishing a solid day of all-out driving without crashing, being crashed into, mechanical difficulties, and overcoming fatigue is an achievement in itself.
In the end, it was the No. 8 car of Fernando Alonso, Kazuki Nakajima, and Sébastien Buemi that crossed the line in first. Nakajima, who set the fastest lap time during qualifying and put the team in pole position, was in the driver’s seat at the moment of the historic finish. A Japanese driver (born in Toyota’s home prefecture of Aichi, no less) behind the wheel of a Japanese car (Seiji Ara and Masanori Sekiya won in an Audi and McLaren, respectively) in the top class is a Le Mans first, and the 33-year-old will no doubt receive a hero’s welcome when he returns home.
His co-driver, Spain’s Fernando Alonso, gets one step closer to winning the racing world’s “triple crown.” Having now achieved championships at in Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix and Le Mans, only the Indy 500 remains.
The No. 7 Toyota followed in second place driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and José María López. Kobayashi qualified his car in second place, exactly two minutes behind Nakajima, but it should be noted that Kobayashi still holds the all-time qualifying lap record from his 2017 run. The car finished two laps behind, after a missed pit stop and minor penalty slowed the sister car.
The 2018 race marks Toyota’s twentieth attempt, which started officially in 1985. No other automaker has been so poised to win and yet been cursed as badly as Toyota, leaving them with five second-place finishes and several impossibly close victories denied by fate’s cruel hand. In 1999, for example, Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki’s Toyota GT-One was on pace to finish first, but blew a tire in the final hour.
In 2016, Nakajima found himself in the same position as he did this year, in the lead Toyota about to cross the finish line. Five minutes before the end of the race, however, the car came to an abrupt stop on the final lap, the result of a connector between the turbo and intercooler failing.
By 2017, after so much heartbreak, Toyota’s became the crowd favorite, but ironically that support is what led to their downfall. Their fastest car was taken out when a driver from another team, whose suit happened to be in the same orange as the safety workers’, tried to show his support. A thumbs up to Kobayashi in the pits prompted the driver to begin take-off before the car was ready, resulting in a damaged clutch.
Finally, this year, at the 86th running of Le Mans, Toyota won. “I am so proud of everyone in the team for this result. It has been our dream to win Le Mans and finally we have achieved it,” said team president Hisatake Murata. “Thank you so much to everyone for their incredible hard work, team spirit and never-give-up attitude. To win Le Mans for TOYOTA after so many frustrations and disappointments is a truly magical moment.”
After his gut-wrenching near miss in 2016, Nakajima got emotional. “It’s great to be here finally; it has been a long time. I am almost speechless,” he said, before echoing the notion of a long-held dream finally realized. “To win this race has been a big dream for all of Toyota since 1985.”
If Toyota simply wanted the win, it could retire happy now. But, we learned yesterday that the company intends not only to continue participating in Le Mans, but is spearheading an effort to create a new top class that will translate more easily to spectacular road cars.
“Finally, we won 24 Hours of Le Mans this year. Of course this is another step towards the next challenge so I would like to ask your continuous support from now on too,” president Akio Toyoda remarked.
Then he reaffirmed the production of a Le Mans prototype-based supercar. “We are developing a road car from a race car competing in the Le Mans,” he confirmed. “I believe that we took one step closer to the realization of the project.”
Images courtesy of Toyota.