This weekend saw one of the biggest racing events of the year take place at the Circuit de la Sarthe in less than usual circumstances. The 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans ran without fans in the stands, a massive change from last year which drew crowds of around 252,500 people to the small French city. This was only the second time that the race had been held in September, the first time being caused by the student and labor protests across France during the events of May 1968. The fans weren’t the only thing missing from the event either. Le Mans ran with only 59 cars on the field between all four categories: LMP1, LMP2, LMGTE Professional and LMGTE Amature. Toyota was the only manufacturer to field cars in the LMP1 category, with the other three cars being from privateer teams, making them the top manufacturer for the third straight year.
This running of Le Mans is also notable because it is the last time the Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) category of cars will take to the circuit. After this year, LMP1 is being phased out as the top class of FIA World Endurance Championship racing in favor of the new Le Mans Hypercar regulations developed as a joint project between the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest.
Even before the race started, everyone knew that LMP1 was going to be Toyota’s category with two of their cars dominating the top of the field for the entirety of the race. The #7 Toyota TS050 took pole position after beating the #1 Rebellion R-13 in a tightly contested competition between the two teams during the Hyperpole session. This was the second straight pole position for the team driving the Toyota #7, which included Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and former Formula 1 driver Kamui Kobayashi. The team beat Rebellion Racing with a lab time of 3:15:267 to Rebellion’s 3:15:822. The Toyota’s sister car, and eventual race winner, clocked in a lap time of 3:16:649. Rounding out the field of competition for the LMP1 category were the #3 car also from Rebellion Racing, and the ByKolles Racing Team #4 car.
The race began very well for the #7 Toyota, who made very good use of their pole position to set a dominating pace on the circuit. They pulled away from both the Rebellion car and their twin the #8. This lead was unfortunately cut short due to mechanical troubles with the car during the night. The Toyota TS050 developed an issue with its engine’s turbo as well as its break, which sent the car into the pit for almost half an hour. This lost the car several laps of time and the front position. Despite these problems, Toyota the team saw success from both cars with the #8 being able to pull ahead of the Rebellion Racing car and in first, as well as the #7 driving with impressive skill that allowed them to make up quite a bit of lost time.
The #8 Toyota that won the race was driven by the team of former F1 drivers Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley. The team drove 387 laps over the course of the 24 hours. Second place was taken by the Rebellion Racing car of Norman Nato, Gustavo Menezes and Bruno Senna, followed by the #7 Toyota car to complete the podium. Rebellion Racing’s second car driven by Romain Dumas, Nathanael Berthon and Formula 2 driver Louis Deletrz took fourth place. The ByKolles car was unfortunately not able to finish the race after part of the car’s rear wing failed while Bruno Senna was driving very early on and caused the car to crash into a barrier.
Toyota driver Nakajima touched on the true team effort that Le Mans is, saying, “It’s special to be in the car for victory at Le Mans three times in a row, it’s very special. 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.”
With the death of LMP1 as a category, it will be very interesting to see how the field of competition looks at next year’s Le Mans, as LMH takes the top position.