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Winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans requires more than speed

20170622_Winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans requires more than speed

There’s an old saying in motorsport: ‘To finish first, first you have to finish.’ Nowhere is that truer than in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the premier annual endurance race for sports cars that dates back to 1923.

The Toyota team learnt that the hard way right at the end of last year’s race. After 23 hours and 53 minutes, their #5 car with Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel led the second-placed Porsche by more than a minute. Victory seemed certain. But, with just six minutes to go, disaster struck.

A problem in the pipe carrying air between the turbocharger and the intercooler caused the engine to lose power. Nakajima had to stop the car just as it started the final lap, allowing the #2 Porsche of Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neel Jani to race past and claim victory. The smallest of defects had cost Toyota its first ever win at Le Mans.

The Japanese manufacturer returned to Le Mans last week determined to make up for last year’s disappointment. Everything was going so well. Nakajima and teammates Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson had won the first two races of the World Endurance Championship season (each lasting a mere six hours) in the #8 Toyota. In qualifying at Le Mans, Kamui Kobayashi took the sister #7 car round in the fastest-ever lap of the circuit to claim pole position.

By hour 10 of the race, Kobayashi and teammates Mike Conway and Stéphane Sarrazin translated that qualifying pace into a two-minute lead over the #1 Porsche of Neel Jani, Nick Tandy and André Lotterer. And then, once again, disaster struck the leading Toyota. This time, a clutch failure forced Kobayashi to stop the car on track, ending his hopes of victory.

But the #7 car wasn’t the only one to be hit by problems. The #8 Toyota dropped out of second place when it spent two hours in the pits having its battery and a broken front motor replaced. The trio of Buemi, Nakajima and Davidson – who came so close to winning last year and seemed to have a good chance this time – ended up finishing ninth, nine laps down on the eventual winners.

And it wasn’t just the Toyota drivers experiencing Le Mans heartbreak this year. The #1 Porsche that had inherited the lead from Kobayashi was 13 laps ahead of everyone else with less than four hours to go, when a loss of oil pressure forced it into retirement as well. Ultimately, it was the #2 car of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber – which had itself spent over an hour in the pits having its front axle motor replaced – that came through to claim Porsche’s third consecutive Le Mans victory. 

It wasn’t the fastest car that won on Sunday. Instead, it was the car that made it to the 24-hour mark with the least time lost to mechanical problems. The result was a vivid demonstration of that old motorsport maxim, and a reminder that the cars’ engineers are constantly chasing not just speed but reliability. In the end, it’s the technological advances they make in pursuit of the latter that will be of greater benefit to us in our road cars.

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