The 24 Hours of Le Mans holds a special place in our hearts. More than any other race, it’s a crucible in which new technology is forged, technology that’s directly relevant to the cars you or I drive on the road. And for 23 hours and 57 minutes, this year’s race belonged to Toyota Gazoo Racing, which put on a fine show with its pair of TS050 hybrid race cars. But racing can be a cruel, cruel sport—and this year was crueler than most.
The race got underway on Saturday during torrential rain, with the first 50 minutes or so conducted under a safety car as the ACO (the race organizers) waited for the track to dry sufficiently for things to get going properly. At the front of the field the battle for the overall win was one fought between Porsche and Toyota with their hybrid LMP1 prototypes. Both of Audi Sport Team Joest’s R18 hybrids faltered early on, as did the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid, but the remaining three cars (the #5 and #6 Toyota TS050s and the #2 Porsche) stayed in close contention with multiple lead changes between them throughout the course of the race.
The #5 Toyota of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Kazuki Nakajima looked set for victory after a strong performance in the final quarter of the race. The Toyotas were able to run for 14 laps between fuel stops—one more than either the Audis or Porsches, and the #5 stretched a lead over the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Neel Jani, Romain Dumas, and Marc Lieb) and its sister TS050 (Mike Conway, Stéphane Sarrazin, and Kamui Kobayashi) until it all went tragically wrong halfway around the penultimate lap. A third of the way down the Mulsanne Straight, with Nakajima at the wheel, the #5 Toyota started losing power. In short order, its 50-second lead over the Porsche evaporated, and the car came to a halt just past the finish line—with three minutes still on the clock.
Porsche, which dominated the race a year ago, was the beneficiary of the Toyota’s misfortune, earning the German company its 18th overall win of this famous race, completing 384 laps in 24 hours. The second Toyota was classified second and Audi—which was in danger of having its worst result at Le Mans since it began competing there in 1999—finished 3rd (#8, Oliver Jarvis, Lucas Di Grassi, and Loic Duval) and 4th (#7, Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fässler, and Benoit Tréluyer). Ultimately, the #5 Toyota wasn’t even classified, excluded from the results for completing its final lap in more than allowed six minutes.
How terrible that this shocking result will overshadow what was a brilliant fight for the win, with frequent lead changes, very close racing, and remarkably little attrition. It’s the second time in three years that Toyota looked set for a win before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.