As a regular at Le Mans, I have become accustomed to watching the race where the cars are so reliable, it is essentially a 24 hour sprint. The only jeopardy is keeping out of trouble with other cars and the leader is more focused on nursing the gap to second place, rather than looking after the car itself. Some teams give their car a wash, or even organise their cars to finish together for the obligatory marketing shot.
This year was different. The race lead changed over 40 times during the race, with Audi, Porsche and Toyota all taking turns to lead the pack. This was Toyota's fifth attempt and as I sat at Tertre Rouge bar watching the end of the race, it looked like this was their year.
The Toyota of Kaz Nakijima, Anthony Davidson and Sebastian Buemi had been leading for some time and in the final hour, the 2nd place Porsche was 25 seconds behind. The Toyota was on old tyres and the Porsche was on new rubber, so the stage was set for the Porsche hunt down it's prey.
With 5 minutes to go, the Porsche was not close enough and Toyota were therefore 1st and 3rd. Then, with with 3 minutes of the race left and just one lap to go, the leading Toyota visibly slowed at the far end of the circuit. The TV switched straight to the Toyota garage and there were worried faces.
The car stuttered over the finish line and stopped completely, with silence in the tribunes. Nakajima reported a total loss of power and desperately tried to get the car reset. Meanwhile the No.2 Porsche of Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neel Jani grabbed the lead to win Porsche another Le Mans victory. Nakajima managed to get the car moving under electric power in an attempt to at least finish, but it was not to be and the car was not classified in the race results.
The enormity of it kicked in, Hugues De Chaunac, team principal of Toyota was in tears, the drivers were forlorn and spectators couldn't believe it. This sort of cruelty is rare and has happened to Toyota before in endurance racing. It also prevented them from breaking the status quo of Audi or Porsche dominating the podium.
In the other classes, Signatech won LMP2 in a hard fought battle with the G-Drive car featuring Will Stevens who finished on the podium at his first Le Mans appearance. Sir Chris Hoy also did a good job bringing his Ligier home at his first attempt.
The return of Ford with 4 GTs caused controversy, with accusations of their car sandbagging and a question mark over the balance of performance even before the race, compared to Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin. Ford inevitably took the GTE Pro victory, with the Risi Ferrari 2nd and another Ford GT in 3rd. That story is one that is likely to be a focus for next year, as the other teams look to level the playing field with what they believe is a car that is more of a prototype than a GT car. Ford certainly were not messing around and clearly taking 4 Pro entries is a statement of intent. The margin in the end was 10 seconds, which flattered the competition and it was a comfortable victory for Ford. In GTE Am, it was a Ferrari 1-2 and Porsche in 3rd.
Again there was less than a lap between first and second place cars in each class, proving that modern endurance racing is close right up to the chequered flag.
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