L&T Motorsport

Le Mans LMP1 Debrief: A Drive for the Ages

“Did that really happen? Wow… I cannot believe it. Again!?!” In a race full of exclamations, this may have been the most common.

The battle in LMP1 at the 2017 Le Mans 24-hour race may be most remembered for what did not happen. A Toyota win. After dominating the two WEC races prior to Le Mans, lapping regularly three seconds faster on test day than Porsche, and setting an outright lap record in qualifying, many had penned in Toyota to win. Instead, all three cars suffered significant setbacks. Shocking retirements set up Porsche for what has to be considered one of the most remarkable comebacks in Le Mans history.

The problems for Toyota began on the first lap as the No. 9 car was overtaken by the No. 4 ByKOLLES entry at the hands of Oliver Webb in the first series of corners. Perhaps too eager to make an early impression, Webb ran wide entering the Mulsanne straight striking a bollard, causing a flat tire and significant nose damage to the No. 4.

No. 4 ByKOLLES limps down the Mulsanne straight (photo credit: WEC race broadcast)

The ByKOLLES car would limp to the pits and retire after completing only seven laps. The bollard was spat out into the No. 9’s nose causing damage, but the car would stay out. The retirement for ByKOLLES was a massive disappointment for the team who had been coming off the heels of their best ever result at Spa. The LMP1 field was already down one car.

The No. 7 Toyota, piloted by Mike Conway led for the first stint before relinquishing the lead to the sister No. 8 car of Sebastian Buemi after completing the first pit cycle.Mike Conway in the No. 7 would retake the lead in the second hour of the race, controlling a 20-30 second gap over the No. 8 for the next couple hours of the race.

The first significant problem for the true contenders hit the No. 2 Porsche as the car was pushed into the garage to fix a loss of drive to the car’s front axle in the fourth hour of the race. The car would spend over an hour in the garage and rejoin the race running dead last, 56th out of the remaining 56 cars running… You might want to make a note of this.

The No. 8 Toyota would engage with in a battle with the No. 1 Porsche over second place in hours 4-7 finally taking the spot in the 7th hour. However, the conquest was short-lived. The No. 8, again at the hands of Buemi, began billowing smoke from the car’s front brakes. It would require significant time in the garage to fix its issue with the hybrid system.

No. 8 Toyota pits and enters garage smoking from the right front. Two hour delay due to Hybrid drive issue (Screenshots from FIA WEC Official broadcast)

At this point in the race, the No. 7 Toyota led, followed by the No. 1 Porsche in second, and the No. 9 Toyota in third. Still not retired but hours in arrears, the No. 2 Porsche was turning laps as repairs continued on the No. 8 Toyota. In the next hour of the race, all hell broke loose.

The chaos in LMP1 began during a safety car period. Under caution, Kamui Kobayashi brought the leading No. 7 car into the pits for routine servicing. While waiting at to rejoin the field at the end of the pit lane, Vincent Capillaire, an LMP2 driver wearing orange race suit, gave thumbs up of encouragement to Kobayashi.

Capillaire shows Kobayashi support (screenshot from FIA WEC Official race broadcast)

Mistaking Capillaire for a race marshal, Kobayashi ran the red light at the end of the pits to head out onto the track. The team quickly radioed in for Kobayashi to stop the car immediately, as the safety car had not passed and rejoining would result in a penalty.

Confusion followed… After a few failed attempts restarting the car, Kobayashi had fried the clutch. Having exited the pits, this meant the No. 7 Toyota would have to attempt an entire lap under electric power to come into the pits for repair. A feat it would not accomplish. The leading No. 7 car that had grabbed the headlines with an all-time Le Mans lap record on Saturday, and controlled the race, Toyota’s best chance ever for a win, was done. Out.

But the drama just before the midway point was not complete. Within minutes, the No. 9 Toyota, now running second, was pushing to close the gap to the now leading No. 1 Porsche. The car was set up for a story book comeback.

Toyota had entered a third car for the first time since 1999 to signify their determination after the last lap tragedy the team suffered in the prior year. Could this car claw back and finally hand Toyota the manufacturers first win at Le Mans? We did not have to wait long to find out the answer.

Contact at the Dunlop chicane with the No. 47 Dallara LMP2 car destroyed the No. 9’s left rear tire. Lapierre tried to limp the car back to the pits, but the tire ripped the rear of the car to shreds ultimately causing a fire. Toyota’s hope at winning Le Mans went up in smoke.

All too familiar scenes of heartbreak again for Toyota as the No. 9 car retires (screenshots from FIA WEC Official broadcast)

Only three LMP1 cars were running at this point, with an hour gap separating each runner, the cars backed off the pace lapping near 3:30sec laps, some 10 full seconds off the cars capabilities. The No. 1 led, second in class the No. 2 Porsche was overall 16th (18 laps down), and third the remaining No. 8 Toyota was 47th overall (29 laps behind the leader).

The hours ticked off with the two trailing LMP1’s making way through the field, gaining no significant ground on the lead No. 1 Porsche.

Entering the 21st hour of the race, the biggest question appeared to be whether the No. 2 Porsche could climb to second place overall making a Porsche 1-2. Unbelievably, Andre Lotterer in the No. 1 leading Porsche lost power and came to a halt on the Mulsanne straight. 

With just over three hours to go, an LMP2 car had taken the lead of Le Mans for the first time in history. Porsche’s hopes now rested on the No. 2 Porsche which had spent over an hour in the pits earlier in the race.

No. 2 Porsche motors on while Andre Lotterer shuts down his No. 1 Porsche, retiring from the race (screenshots from FIA WEC Official broadcast)

Remember the note from earlier? The car was running in fourth overall. Without an incident, the car still had a shot at winning the race. Easy, right? The race to this point would say otherwise.

Onlookers held their breath as the No. 2 Porsche closed down on the leading LMP2’s in hours 22 and 23 as the No.8 Toyota climbed to ninth overall.

With about 45 minutes remaining in the race, the No. 2 Porsche completed its astonishing climb from 56th to first place. The car would take the checkered flag and with it, glory for Porsche.

The No. Porsche and its crew celebrate their Le Mans win entering victory lane (photo credit: @Porsche_Team Twitter page)

The win is the 3rd straight for the German marque, and the first for Kiwi driver Brenden Hartley. Whether the win has any bearing on Porsche LMP1 withdrawal rumors remains unseen.

Simply a wild race.

At one point, the tow trucks appeared to be in the running for drive of the race in LMP1. Instead, we were left with a drive truly deserving of a Le Mans champion. The No. 2 Porsche crew submitted a drive for the ages.

Unheralded, the No. 8 Toyota crew deserves a special recognition. The entire Toyota garage was absolutely gutted and demoralized, but the team kept turning laps, with Buemi taking fastest lap honors and submitting a race that encompasses the spirit of Le Mans. Grit, will, and determination.

Toyota have already vowed to return and fight harder than ever. Will Porsche be there to defend their title, or will they go out on top?

I will be running quali times to chase down June 2018 in the meantime in anticipation of the next Le Mans _

Rob Carlson

Enthusiastic San Diego based petrol head with a BS in Business Management.

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