Every year, some of the most high tech automobiles in the world contest the Circuit de la Sarthe for 24 hours in the most grueling race on Earth. This is a race of heroes, legends, and failures. This year, it was an all out melee all across the board, with plenty to prove, or to lose. From Audi trying to reclaim their throne at the top, to Porsche trying to prove that they are back to stay, and Toyota, always the bridesmaid in second, never the bride, desperate for their first win. You put all this together, and you get an instant classic, albeit, for the tragic twist at the end.
I’m going to be upfront as I get into my feelings on the race. I have friends at Toyota Motorsports, and they are flying me over for a factory tour in August. (And if you have anything you want me to ask them, or want to see, please comment below) With all that said, I am historically a Porsche or Audi fan. But with the way the past couple of events have gone, I found myself drawn to the idea of Toyota finally breaking the 25 year curse that has haunted Japanese makes since Mazda won all those years ago.
But in the lead up to the race, it seemed like it was ze Germans, or well, the nationally German, teams that had the upper hand. Audi had pace with the new R18, winning two races and only losing their Spa victory to a technicality. Combine that with the 919 Porsches locking out the front row, and it looked to be an uphill battle for Toyota.
But, as the hours went by, it looked more like Toyota had made the exact right bet between pace and reliability. Both Audi and Porsche spent lengthy amounts of time under repair in their garages. The championship defending number one Porsche was several dozen laps behind by the closing stages of the race.
As the hours went by, and cars fell out through the night, it was the battle at the front that seemed white hot. The number two Porsche battling the two Toyota Hybrids. But time and time again, it was the red and white Toyotas in front.
And throughout the field, more battles were taking place. From the four Ford GTs trying to ace out the new Ferrari 488s to replicate the same result they had 50 years ago in this same race. But the story of GTE-Pro was the Houston, Texas-based Risi Competizione privateer team who was constantly fighting the factory backed Fords for podium places. Risi not only got their 488 late, but also were coming from several years of bad luck. Seeing them at home fighting the Fords was one of the most heartwarming things I have ever seen in racing.
But, as we reached the final minutes of the race, all seemed to come apart for the underdog teams. With 30 minutes to go, a penalty handed down to the Risi team, meant that they would surely lose any chance of being on the podium, despite fighting the factory teams harder than anyone else. They of course, decided to not serve their penalty on track, and to save it for after the finish. A noble move from a team of true racers.
But then, true agony for the leaders. The leading number 5 Toyota began to slow with less than six minutes to go. Elation and nervous energy turned to tears and exasperation as the Japanese automaker realized that LeMans was out of their grasp once again. The 5 car falling from the lead to not even being classified has to be the cruelest twist I have ever seen in all of my life watching racing.
And at the end of the day, I still can’t believe it. And it seems like no one else in the world of racing really can either. From Porsche and Audi both giving more respect to Toyota than trumpeting their own successes is telling. Porsche didn’t win the race so much as Toyota lost it. For a team that has been at the precipice of winning so many times, surely this is the most cruel example of that win slipping from their grasp. I know that no one could have written it like this. But then again, it is LeMans after all. There is no crueler mistress in all of racing than the most famous 24 hour race. But I also know that Toyota will keep coming back to this race until they reach the top step. And I know from now on, they will have many more fans cheering them on to that win.