THE MOST dramatic sport story of the weekend didn’t happen on a football pitch or a tennis court; nor did it involve Lewis Hamilton and a cranky gearbox at the Baku street circuit in Azerbaijan. What true aficionados are discussing round the water cooler today is the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours, a race that may be remembered as the cruellest in Le Mans’s 93-year history.
In the dying moments of the race, with Toyota scenting its first victory in the top-flight LMP1 class, fate dealt the Japanese car maker a catastrophic blow. With three minutes of the 24 hours left on the clock, the No 5 car, a TS050 with the seasoned former Formula One driver Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel, was in the lead. Neel Jani, in a Porsche 919 Hybrid, was 30 seconds behind, so a steady final lap of the 8½-mile Circuit de la Sarthe would have been enough for champagne, laurel wreaths and a place in history for Toyota as only the second Japanese manufacturer to win the gruelling event.
Then, disaster. As he headed into the final lap, Nakajima slowed, and then stopped on the pit straight. His exhausted teammates in the pit were dumbstruck, gazes fixed on television screens as Nakajima attempted to restart his ailing machine. A brief flicker of hope sparked as the car rolled forward in a last gasp, but then it stopped for good. By this time the No 2 Porsche of Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb was long gone, taking the chequered flag for Porsche’s 18th Le Mans victory.
Afterwards, Toshio Sato, the team president of Toyota Gazoo Racing, described the moment the car stopped as “simply heartbreaking”. Oliver Jarvis, the British driver in the No 8 Audi R18 that inherited third place, said, “No one wanted the race to finish like that.”
The cause of the problem still hasn’t been revealed by Toyota; initial reports suggested a turbo failure. The consolation for the Japanese car maker is that its second car, driven by the Briton Mike Conway, the Frenchman Stéphane Sarrazin and Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi, gained second place, and the performance of the TS050 Hybrids was unexpectedly strong — they were easily a match for the Porsches, the race favourites, and the two all-new Audi R18s, which, despite a strong start, struggled to keep up after the first hour and suffered technical gremlins.
So Toyota continues its bittersweet “nearly man” record, having now finished the Le Mans 24 Hours as runner-up five times.
Porsche’s second car, the No 1 919 Hybrid of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber, had two visits to the garage during the night, each longer than an hour, as the team tried to stop the engine overheating. It finished 26th overall.
Audi, winner of Le Mans 13 times in 18 races since its debut in 1999, came to the race buoyed by impressive results in the two previous world endurance championship races, at Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps.
The revised R18 has a reworked V6 TDI diesel engine, a more powerful hybrid system that uses a battery for energy storage, rather than the flywheel system used previously, as well as improved aerodynamics and other components. Of all the new cars in the LMP1 category, it’s arguably undergone the most significant changes.
It is, then, perhaps not surprising that one of the Audis, the No 7 piloted by Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, spent more time than was planned in the pits – it required a replacement turbocharger in the second hour, having led the race for a while. Both Audis’ brake discs were changed later in the race, too, placing any hope of a win out of reach — they finished two and 17 laps behind the winner.
Ford wins GTE Pro class on Le Mans return
Arguably the biggest story before Le Mans 2016 was Ford’s return, 50 years after its historic 1-2-3 victory over Ferrari. The Blue Oval entered a track-focused version of its all-new Ford GT – a direct descendant of the GT40 that won in 1966 – and once again made a direct challenge to Ferrari, which was fielding its new 488 GTE in the GTE Pro class.
History didn’t quite repeat itself but Ford’s cars crossed the line in first, third and fourth positions. Second place in class went to Ferrari, but it wasn’t a factory-run car — both AF Corse 488s struggled in the race and retired before the flag fell.
Instead it was US-based privateer Risi Competizione that flew the flag for Maranello, and its No 82 car piloted by Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Matteo Malucelli diced with the No 68 and No 69 Fords throughout the race. It was classic stuff, but the No 68 Ford GT of Joey Hand, Dirk Muller and Sebastian Bourdais eventually came out on top.
Post-race squabbling marred the result somewhat. Ford was accused of attempting to manipulate a 1-2-3 finish in the final hour with a protest against the No 82 car for not having functional leader lights. Risi was given a stop-and-go penalty for the infraction with 15 minutes of the race left to run, but the American team decided not serve the penalty, arguing that it didn’t have enough time to repair the car before the end of the race. The Radio Le Mans commentator John Hindhaugh was vocal in his derision for the penalty, suggesting that it wasn’t in the spirit of the race.
At a post-race hearing the stewards accepted the team’s explanation and imposed a €5,000 fine; the car was hit with a 20-second time penalty at an additional hearing. Risi retaliated with its own protest, claiming the No 68 Ford had been speeding in a slow zone, which is enforced in parts of the track while an accident is cleared.
The stewards handed the GT a 50-second penalty, and a separate technical delegate report added a further 20 seconds for the car having a faulty wheel speed sensor. Given that the gap between the cars on track was one minute, the final results were unchanged.
A historic race
All of the above fails to mention other highlights, of course: Sir Chris Hoy, the Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist, competing in (and completing) his first Le Mans in an LMP2 car; Porsches, Aston Martins and Chevrolets squabbling over the scraps behind Ford and Ferrari in GTE Pro; and the heroic Frédéric Sausset, who lost all four of his limbs to infection, completing the race in the LMP2 category.
And then there was the excitement of Hollywood royalty on hand. Jackie Chan, Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham and Brad Pitt were on the grid at the start of the race, with Pitt waving the cars off. The actor Patrick Dempsey is following in the Steve McQueen/Paul Newman vein of getting his hands dirty: he races himself, and this year ran his own GTE Pro team, delegating driving duties to professionals. Could it be that a new Le Mans film is in the works? Producers couldn’t have picked a better year to do their research.