At first, it was a pretty straight forward race. 24 hours, 60 cars, 13.6 km and 38 turns. What could possibly go wrong? Toyota had shown next level dominance at the previous two FIA WEC races in Silverstone and Spa Francorchamps, whereas Porsche were slightly on the back foot with their 919 Hybrids. Already on Thursday the Japanese brand had shown tremendous pace with Kamui Kobayashi set a staggering new lap record in his TS050 during the second qualifying session. The white and red #7 Toyota zipped around Circuit de la Sarthe in a mind boggling 3:14.791 decimating Neel Jani’s 3:16.89 time from 2015.
So before the French flag was even unravelled, records were already being shattered. Once we’d reached the 24th hour on Sunday, no-one was left sane. The Le Mans 24 hours is often addressed as one of the toughest if not the toughest race in motorsport and when drama strikes, things can go very wrong.
When the sun gave way to darkness on Saturday evening- the #7 Toyota was leading. But when the light of Sunday morning swallowed up the night sky, the #7 was in its garage with the roller door shut. They often say “make it through the night and you’ve survived the worst.” But for Toyota, just making it to the end would do them satisfaction after last year. For the second year in a row Pascal Vasselon, Rob Leupen, Hughes de Chaunac and every other person involved in the Toyota Motorsports program was left sobbing. Incredible heartbreak overnight saw both the leading #7 of Kobayashi, Conway and Sarrazin and and the third placed #9 Toyota of Nicolas Lapierre, Yuji Kunimoto and Jose Maria Lopez retire within 45 minutes of each other.
The #7 suffered from a clutch problem and the #9, a puncture caused by contact with an LMP2 car which subsequently led to an engine fire. Kobayashi discovered his issue at the very start of the lap, leaving him no choice but to try and limp the #7 home with no power. The car crawled and hobbled but try as he might Kobayashi couldn’t make it. After multiple stops and starts the TS050 eventually expired in the beginning of the Porsche Curves, just a short stretch from the pit entrance. Shockwaves pounded through the Toyota garage.
Before the crew had even got a chance to wipe away their tears, drama struck again. The Gazoo Racing mechanics and engineers were gobsmacked at the sight of the #9 Toyota crawling down the Mulsanne straight. Hands where covering open mouths and and tears were streaming down faces. In Lapierre’s rush to get the #9 car back to the pit lane he caused major damage to the rear left body work as the punctured tyre carcass ripped through the wheel arch. Consequently, a fire ignited in the engine and Lapierre was brought to a halt on the exit of Arnarge corner. The engine was useless now, if the fire hadn’t destroyed it the automated fire extinguisher in the engine bay would have done so. Lapierre had one last chance, all hopes lying on the remaining battery power. The car gradually scraped and splattered its way back to the pits but ground to a halt for the final time within sight of the pit entrance. Toyota’s 2017 Le Mans 24 hours was over before they’d even reached halfway. With the #8 car still in the garage after its brake fire and way out of contention, a feeling of resignation descended on the garage.
It was all up to Porsche now. It was their race to lose. But even the brand from Stuttgart was having an issue plagued 24 hours. The #2 car of Earl Bamber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley spent over an hour in the garage at the very beginning of the race after a front drive problem brought Bamber into the pits. The Kiwi’s 919 appeared to lose power dramatically on acceleration out of Mulsanne Corner, and next moment he was coasting. He managed to keep the car going and returned to the pitlane, where the car was hauled backwards into the garage, engine covers being wrestled free almost before it came to rest.
The front drive was replaced and the car back out on track an hour and a half later but seemingly out of contention. So when all three Toyota’s hit trouble the last man standing was the #1 Porsche driven by Nick Tandy, Andre Lotterer and Neel Jani.
Nothing is ever certain in this game, and there’s an ancient aphorism that states … to finish first, first you have to finish. 2017 showed a terrific but tragic illustration of this. With 4 hours to go, it was Porsche’s turn at crawling down the Mulsanne and grounding to a halt. With Lotterer behind the wheel the #1 was awfully slow out of Tetre Rouge. It wasn’t a hybrid problem, nor a puncture, not a clutch issue either, not even a brake fire. This time it was an oil pressure problem. Unfortunately for Lotterer this was a terminal dilemma and the car stopped on the run out of the second Mulsanne chicane. Lotterer out and it was day done for the #1 crew. This time it was Andreas Siedl’s turn to sob but there was no time for that.
The #2 Porsche was starting to make up ground and chasing through the P2 field. With the #1 car out the Jackie Chan DC Racing #38 car assumed the lead but not for long. Thomas Laurent and ex Audi LMP1 driver Oliver Jarvis chuckled in the pits as their team mate Ho-Pin Tung was passed by the #2 car as they re-took the overall lead. Finally, a P1 car was back on top.
Everyone was on the edge of their seats for the final hour. The spectators sitting in the grandstands needed a discount for only using the front half of their chairs. After the extraordinary drama we’d seen so far, we could expect anything in the final hour. Absolutely anything was possible. All Timo Bernhard had to do in the #2 Porsche was lap. Just one task, lap. Porsche’s 19th overall victory at Le Mans was hanging in the balance, the tension was immense.
With five seconds on the clock, a win was signed sealed and certain for Porsche. As the chequered flag dropped 24 hours of frantic chaos was over. We could all breathe now. The 919 Hybrid crossed the line and completed the 85th edition of the world’s greatest race. The Porsche garage went crazy as the team celebrated. On the podium, things got emotional. Brendon Hartley was elated with his first ever Le Mans 24 hours’ win. It takes a lot to win Le Mans, in fact, it takes more than a lot. It’s a race full of emotion. Joy, anticipation, disappointment, heartbreak, grief, dejection and astonishment are all sensations you have to come just to race in the Le Mans 24 hours. Winning it is something else. They say the key to winning the world’s greatest race is to never give up, and the #2 car didn’t give up. No matter what they just did not give up.
Photos credit to FIA WEC and 24 Hours of Le Mans- http://www.fiawec.com