WEC turning points: Toyota suffer heartbreak at Le Mans
In the third round of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship, Toyota suffered one of the most gut-wrenching defeats in recent history, allowing the No. 2 Porsche of Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas to inherit an unexpected victory.
As bombshells come, there are few more painful than that suffered by Toyota at Le Mans. With the exception of Pierre Levegh, who fell half an hour short of winning single-handedly in 1952, or Peter Dumbreck’s aerial exit from the 1999 race, few Le Mans retirees will ever achieve iconic status in the way managed by Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima in 2016. With just three minutes of the 24 hours left to run, Nakajima came to a halt on the pit straight and Toyota’s dreams of a first Le Mans victory were left in tatters, drawing sympathy from across the paddock and the legions of fans watching around the world.
Of course, the Japanese marque had experienced bad luck at Le Mans before. In 1994, the SARD-entered 94C-V had led for over nine hours when gearbox problems hit with 90 minutes remaining, dropping Jeff Krosnoff, Eddie Irvine and Mauro Martini to second. In 1999, the factory-entered GT-One qualified first and second, but all three cars would suffer punctures and the all-Japanese entry of Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya was the only car to reach the finish, in second. Then in 2014, Nakajima, Alex Wurz and Stéphane Sarrazin were comfortably leading when their TS040 Hybrid retired in the early hours of Sunday morning.
After a disappointing run in 2015, there was no shortage of motivation in both Japan and at the team’s European base in Cologne to bring the bad luck streak to an end. Buemi, Davidson and Nakajima had proven the potential of the new TS050 Hybrid by leading at Spa before suffering engine problems. With the problem identified, and found to be specific to the loads placed on the engine at Eau Rouge, Toyota was in an upbeat mood. This was proven to be well-founded, as the Mike Conway-driven No. 6 starred in the early wet conditions to alternate the lead with the No. 1 Porsche.
After the Porsche and both Audis fell by the wayside, the race settled down to a three-way fight between the No. 2 Porsche and the two Toyotas, with No. 5 fighting back after a vibration set it on an alternate strategy.
The battle raged throughout the night and early morning, with No. 5 moving past the sister car before engaging the triple-stinting Marc Lieb in battle. Blessed with a new set of tyres, Davidson quickly caught and passed the Porsche with four hours to go.
The lead trio became a lead duo after Kamui Kobayashi in the No. 6 lost time with a spin, but it mattered little for Toyota as long as No. 5 continued out front. Buemi handed over to Nakajima for one last time and as the clock ticked down, Toyota looked to have the race won.
But with 23 hours and 57 minutes elapsed, Nakajima began to slow and came to a complete halt on the start-finish straight – the problem later attributed to a technical defect on a connector on the air line between the turbo charger and the intercooler, causing a loss of turbo charger control. 2016 would not be its year.