Toyota, the world’s number one car manufacturer, came agonisingly close to achieving a goal that has eluded it for so many years: victory at Le Mans, a grail it has been chasing since 1985! A gritty yet focused display by all of its six drivers kept it in contention throughout the 2016 race. Yet a last-minute problem dramatically handed the coveted trophy to the N°2 Porsche/Michelin crew Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Neel Jani who inherited a surprise win.
With American cinema star Brad Pitt watching from the grandstands, the final scene of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours was something even Hollywood scriptwriters wouldn’t have dared to suggest.
For everybody at Circuit de la Sarthe, Toyota was about to make history and the N°5 Michelin-equipped TS050-Hybrid seemed to be on the verge of completing the closing laps of the 24-hour race with a comfortable advantage over the chasing N°2 Porsche/Michelin.
The Japanese car’s fuel-efficiency advantage seemed to have given it an edge over the technologically similar Porsche 919 Hybrid/Michelin – winner of last year’s race – and the Pascal Vasselon-led squad also appeared to have built a popular victory on its ability to stay out of big trouble… For 23 hours and 56 minutes, at least.
Indeed, with less than five minutes remaining, the Toyota unexpectedly came to halt on the start/finish line. At first, everybody imagined that the team had misread the clock. It soon transpired, though, that Nakajima – who was at the wheel at the time – had a technical problem. Moments afterwards, we learned that the Japanese driver didn’t have any power.
Amazingly, the N°2 Porsche came round to take the chequered flag in its place.
All of a sudden, there were celebrations in the German team’s garage and utter, total despondency at Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Nakajima eventually managed to muster up enough power to complete one more lap at slow speed, but the car had exceeded the maximum authorised last-lap time when the Japanese driver reappeared in front of the grandstands. He didn’t even qualify for second place, which went instead to the N°6 sister car (+3 laps).
Until that extraordinary conclusion, it looked as though there wouldn’t be an Audi crew on the final podium for the first time since the launch of the German make’s endurance racing programme back in 1999. In extremis, the crew of the N°8 car managed to maintain Audi’s record, though, albeit 12 laps adrift of the winning car. The N°7 Michelin-equipped R18 was fourth (+17 laps).
The 2015 FIA World Endurance Champions Bernhard/Webber/Hartley (N°1 Porsche/Michelin) ended up 38 laps adrift (13th overall) after suffering a complex technical problem.
This was Michelin’s 25th Le Mans victory and its 19th in succession in La Sarthe.
In the different classes, Ford celebrated its return to Le Mans and the 50th anniversary of its landmark one-two-three finish of 1966 with victory in LM GTE Pro with its brand new GT (N°68). Hand/Müller/Bourdais gained the upper-hand over the equally-new N°82 Ferrari 488 GTE/Michelin (2nd, +1m00s) with less than five hours remaining. However, the Italian machine is under the threat of a post-finish punishment for a technical infringement and Ford might end up with the top three places in the class if a penalty is effectively applied.
Whatever the final decision regarding this matter, the Italian make will at least be pleased to have pocketed LM GTE Am honours thanks to the N°62 458 Italia/Michelin of Sweedler/Bell/Segal, which took the class spoils ahead of the N°83 Ferrari/Michelin (+2m54s) and the N°88 Porsche/Michelin (+1 lap).
Last but least, LMP2 was won by the N°36 Signatech-Alpine of Menezes/Lapierre/Richelmi.