Toyota finally broke its hoodoo at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by claiming a dominant 1-2 finish at the classic endurance race.
Fernando Alonso, partnering former Formula 1 drivers Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima claimed outright victory in the Japanese marque’s #8 LMP1 entry finishing 2 laps ahead of the sister #7 car piloted by Mike Conway, José María López and Kamui Kobayashi.
The victory put Alonso one step closer to claiming the ‘Triple Crown’, a feat only achieved by the late Graham Hill in winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and Indianapolis 500. Only the Indy 500 – a race he nearly won on debut last year – remains on his outstanding achievements.
While Alonso’s F1 career enters its twilight and he looks uncertain of adding to his two World Championship titles earned in 2005-6, his sterling performance on debut in one of the toughest events in motorsport was a true statement of intent and a reminder that, when given competitive machinery, he remains one of the greats of modern racing.
Victory came off the back of an outstanding team effort by Alonso’s fellow drivers. Nakajima emphatically put the TS050 LMP1 Hybrid on pole position, which he and Buemi drove almost flawlessly during their respective stints.
Pushed hard by the sister entry from the start, it was going to be a case of which of the two Toyotas – such was their competitive advantage over their rival privateer outfits – would finish first. The big question mark was reliability, with the entire Toyota operation still bearing the scars of losing victory on the final lap of the 2016 event when an airline split while comfortably in the lead.
The two cars sprinted away and engaged in a fierce battle in the opening six hours, swapping the lead repeatedly.
The #8 car was dealt a blow when it was handed a 60-second stop-go penalty for speeding in a slow zone during the race’s tenth hour. That dropped the trio over two minutes behind the #7 entry as darkness fell.
When Alonso got behind the wheel at around 1:30am, he put in a superb quadruple stint to haul the #8 back into contention and cut the deficit down to thirty seconds. Often lapping between two and four seconds quicker than Conway and then López, he scythed his way past lapped traffic in a demonstration that belied his inexperience in this discipline.
Nakajima took over and carried that momentum forward, finally closing on and passing Kobayashi through Mulsanne in the race’s seventeenth hour before pulling away into the lead.
After 19 attempts and five times as runner-up, Toyota is now only the second Japanese manufacturer to win in Le Mans, with the first being Mazda’s victory in 1991 with the screaming rotary-engined 787.
Fittingly Nakajima, the son of former Honda and Toyota racer Satoru Nakajima, took the car across the finish line to cheers and tears of joy. The team’s gamble on running Alonso, whose sole endurance outings came at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Spa Francorchamps – which he also won – was a huge risk, but also a strong vindication. Alonso’s ‘Triple Crown’ goal is now undeniably in reach and will fuel speculation that he will call time on his F1 career to pursue victory at the Indy 500.
Almost forgotten in the Toyota show was the Rebellion Racing privateer squad of Gustavo Menezes, Mathias Beche and Thomas Laurent who completed the outright podium. Without hybrid technology and the sheer glut of finances of its carmaker rivals, the trio’s R13 Gibson V8 finished 12 laps adrift and led what was effectively LMP1 ‘Class B’.
Also competing in the LMP1 class for the first time was 2009 Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button, who steered SMP Racing’s #11 entry alongside the Russian duo of Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin. The car was forced into the pits for two hours with a sensor failure and ultimately retired in the final hour with a blown engine.
The LMP2 class was won by the #26 G-Drive Racing ORECA 07 piloted by Roman Rusinov, Andrea Pizzitola and current Formula E Championship points leader Jean-Éric Vergne, who finished two laps ahead of their nearest competitors.
The GTE classes provided the most action on track, with the Porsche 911 RSR entries hotly pursued by a pack of Ford GTs, Corvettes, Aston Martins, BMWs and Ferraris.
In the end Porsche claimed both the GTE-Pro and GTE-Am crowns, with the #91 factory team of Michael Kristensen, Kévin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor winning the former and the #77 entry owned by Hollywood actor Patrick Dempsey winning the latter at the hands of Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Julien Andlauer.
Image via Toyota