From the outset of the world’s most important endurance race a day ago, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Toyota would take the win again. As the lone manufacturer-entered Hybrid-powered prototype in the field, Toyota has significantly more power to play with than any other car. The only question that remained pertained to which Toyota prototype would take that win.
The stakes were set in qualifying where the #7 car of Jose Maria Lopez, Mike Conway, and Kamui Kobayashi nabbed the pole position ahead of the #8 of Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso, and Sebastien Buemi. From the drop of the tricolore, the 7 streaked out a huge lead, and Mike Conway put in more than one hero-level stint pounding out fast lap after fast lap. Fernando Alonso, especially in the overnight segment, was visibly frustrated that his car didn’t have nearly the top-end speed to compete with the 7 on outright performance.
As the race wound down to its final hour, things still looked much the same, as the 7 stayed out front over the 8 with more than a lap in hand. Then the bad luck came. A couple of hours before the finish, the leading Toyota had a deflated tire. No problem, pit for a fresh one and keep going. After another stint of problem-free running, the stint after that was cut to just 2 laps as another tire went down again, presumably from something on the circuit. Still plenty of time in hand, pit for a single tire and get back out still in the lead.
As we found out after the race ended, the tire pressure sensor was wrong. It wasn’t the left front tire that had failed, it was the left rear. By changing just one tire, the team sent JML back out on track with the same flat tire he’d had before he came in.
He now had to trundle around for a full lap on the same flat tire. By the time Jose Maria Lopez slowly inched his way back to the pits and had four new Michelins fitted, the #8 had moved past into the lead.
That was the race done and dusted. Two failed tires in three hours is bad enough luck. Toyota’s weird idea to change just one tire absolutely certainly cost the #7 the win they so desperately wanted (and probably deserved). Toyota still gets a 1-2 finish, but the “wrong” car won it. Congratulations to the FIA WEC championship winning car for punctuating an incredible season with two straight Le Mans wins. Toyota, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso, and Sebastien Buemi are double Le Mans winners.
Speaking of double Le Mans winners, the Signatech Alpine Matmut LMP2 car of Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao, and Pierre Thiriet have also won the class title and Le Mans laurels. This was a very tight class, and seriously could have gone to any number of LMP2 runners.
The Signatech team won it, ultimately, by running a quiet race with no major issues. Well done.
AF Corse’s #51 Ferrari 488 GTE took home the GTE Pro class victory with James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi, and Daniel Serra. Following Aston Martin’s pole position, that car was given a BoP mandated drop in horsepower, which pretty obviously dropped them out of contention as they lost the lead in quick order and never regained any kind of competitiveness. At some point in the night the AF Corse got a really lucky break on safety car order, which netted them a huge gap to the Porsches in second and third. From there it was just managing that gap and maintaining the car, which the drivers did perfectly.
At the start of this race, I never would have imagined Ben Keating, Felipe Fraga, and Jeroen Bleekemolen would be standing at the top step. For one thing, this is a one-off Ford GT effort, and the drivers have never been aboard this car anywhere. The the gorgeous Purple Wynn’s Ford fought its way to the front and (this is becoming a common theme) ran a near perfect race with hardly any issues. It was almost all for nought, however, as Ben Keating in the final hour ran afoul of the rules by doing a bit of a burnout on his way out of the pits. The resulting penalty of a stop-go was adjudicated and Keating lost most of the lead that the team had gained on track. The non-professional 47-year-old managed to hold off Porsche factory ace Joerg Bergmeister who was just 5 seconds behind.
That short bit between the penalty and handing off to Bleekemolen for the finish was absolutely the drive of Ben Keating’s life. He did an amazing job to keep the car at the front, and it was great to watch. Well done Ben.