Proving definitively that sticking to their task was worth it, Toyotacompleted their own test of endurance in style with victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours securing a hat-trick of wins for the team at the meeting. There were no fans at the Circuit de la Sarthe to celebrate their achievement but Toyota took huge pleasure in ensuring their place in the pantheon of endurance racing as this year’s vingt-quatre brought the curtain down on the current iteration of the top class of sports cars.
There was also success for former Formula One driver Paul di Resta. He took his and his team’s first class win at Le Mans. He secured victory alongside teammates Filipe Albuquerque and Philip Hanson for United Autosports, the team founded by McLaren F1 chief executive Zak Brown.
In the top LMP1 class, a dominant run at the front of the field ensured that Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley in the No 8 Toyota TS050 secured the win. They completed 387 laps and finished five laps up on the second-placed Rebellion Racing entry of Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato and Bruno Senna.
For Toyota, their return to sports car racing will be seen as fully vindicated. They were the only manufacturer in the class but have brought a determination and professionalism that deserved to be rewarded. It has been some journey to this point.
The Japanese marque had tried and failed to win the 24 in the 1990s and returned to the top level in 2012. Vying with Audi and Porsche, they subsequently came close but it seemedvictory was destined to remain out of reach, not least in 2016 when comfortably leading the race their car ground to a halt with only one lap remaining.
In 2018 however they broke their duck and have since been untouchable. Victory last year followed and this time they will be taking the trophy home. Nakajima and Buemi, winners in both those races, also completed their hat-tricks, while for Hartley, it was a second victory after the New Zealander won for Porsche in 2017.
Nakajima praised the victory as true team effort. “It’s special to be in the car for victory at Le Mans three times in a row, it’s very special,” he said. “Our race was down and up and everybody did a really great job. It was quite tough and I am really happy to be a part of this team.”
The Swiss driver Buemi acknowledged that fortune had favoured their car. “It shows once again the luck here in Le Mans can turn at any point,” he said. “When we started I had the feeling everything was against us, then all of a sudden everything started to go well and we found ourselves leading. Once again you never know until the race is over.”
That the racing across 59 cars in four classes took place at all in the current circumstances can be considered a success but the meeting was far from normal at La Sarthe. The race has been held in September only once before, delayed from its traditional June slot by the civil unrest in France in 1968, while this time Covid-19 has dictated both timing and protocol.
No spectators were present and of all the meetings this year held without fans their absence here was most jarring. There are usually 250,000, the vast majority camping in and around the 8.4 mile circuit. The empty grandstands cut forlorn shapes, excised of colour and of noise. Trackside the missing, usually pervasive smell of barbecuing, only highlighted the unique atmosphere this race ordinarily enjoys. The Circuit de la Sarthe felt bereft, other-worldly even, the engines running but the beating heart of Le Mans sorely missed. Organisers are hopeful that fans might be welcomed back next year, when the race already has a June date confirmed.
Hartley noted the difference the lack of fans made “Today other than a few little issues that didn’t go our way, afterwards we did more or less a perfect race,” he said. “But the emotion is not quite the same without the fans. The message to them is: we miss you and you are a big part of this race as well.”
It had been the sister No 7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López, previously always the bridesmaid to the No 8, which looked to have the edge in the early stages. Kobayashi had taken pole and in the opening hours they opened up a 40-second lead on their teammates. Their position looked even more promising after the No 8 went a lap down when they had to change a brake due to a cooling problem seven hours in.
The expected thunderstorms failed to materialise as they raced through the night with the No 7 looking solid, a lap and a half up until just after the midway point there was heartbreak. With lap times dropping, Kobayashi was forced to pit and the team had to replace a malfunctioning turbo. It took 30 minutes and by the time they rejoined they were seven laps off the lead now held by Hartley. It was an advantage they would not relinquish as the No 8 went on to run metronomically to the flag. The No 7 car took third.
Toyota bade farewell to the TS050 with a win in the last outing for the LMP1 class at Le Mans. The top-end of endurance racing next will be replaced next year by the new Hypercar class. In an attempt to bring together European and US endurance racing classes, the new regulations will allow two types of car at the head of the field: the Le Mans Hypercar and the Le Mans Daytona Hybrid, the latter expected to be launched late in 2022.
Di Resta’s victory was a hard-fought affair in an LMP2 field that was very competitive and went to the wire after they took a splash and dash stop in the final minutes. His team took the flag only 30 seconds clear of the second-placed Jota of Britain’s Anthony Davidson, António Félix da Costa and Roberto González.
In LMGT PRO, Harry Tincknell, Maxime Martin and Alexander Lynn took victory for Aston Martin and ensured a double for the British marque with the TF Sport Aston Martin of Jonathan Adam, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluc taking the honours in LMGT AM.