It was a bitter sweet victory for the #8 crew of Toyota Gazoo Racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Having barely led any of the race, or any of the track sessions ahead of the race event, it was Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima who took the overall Le Mans victory for the second consecutive year, even though some would argue it was deservingly the #7 team’s victory.
The race had been for the #7 to lose in the hands of Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi, but a puncture sustained in the final hour caused the win to be handed over to the sister car. An error in the sensor data saw Toyota change the wrong tyre for Lopez, who was in the car, which meant he had to pit again for the same puncture the following lap. These two additional stops in the pits for Conway, Lopez and Kobayashi lost them the lead, giving the #8 a 30 second advantage with less than an hour left on the clock.
In what had been a fairly uneventful race for the LMP1s, it did spice up the ending. However the very late change of the lead led some to speculate whether or not Toyota had deliberately changed the wrong tyre to force the #7 back into the pits for a final time. It would not be the first time that a team had used an extra pit stop to switch cars on track, as evidenced by Porsche LMP1 Team in 2017 at the 6 Hours of Nurburgring.
With the championship wrapped up, however, there would have been no real reason for Toyota to force the switch. Here at TheCheckeredFlag, we believe that it was simply a mistake by the team due to the error in data, and not a deliberate move to give the Alonso car victory.
When asked to explain why the team had only changed one tyre rather than all four, Technical Director of Toyota’s LMP1 program, Pascal Vasselon, stated that they would have had to change the #7 onto a full scrubbed set of tyres that had already been used for four stints. Although they had a massive advantage over the field, they would not have wanted to have gone onto a full set of used tyres in a bid to protect the car in case further issues befell it.
All in all, the race for the overall victory at the 87th Le Mans was relatively boring. Not even the Toyotas brought a fight to the race, with the #8 seeming to be completely off the pace of the sister car, sitting around 40 seconds behind it on track until the final hour.
The Privateers tried to battle hard between themselves for best-of-the-rest, but in the end it was the only car to not hit any issues – the #17 SMP Racing in the hands of Stoffel Vandoorne, Mikhail Aleshin and Vitaly Petrov – that took the bottom step of the podium.
We can only hope that, with talks of a Balance of Performance and Success Ballast potentially coming into effect for the 2019/20 FIA World Endurance Championship, there will be competition again in LMP1 and it will not just be dominated by one manufacturer.