Toyota Wins Second Straight Le Mans, But Not Without Drama
Despite the strong result on paper, the race wasn’t without drama for the Toyota crew. The manufacturer fielded two TS050 Hybrid LMP1 cars in this year’s race — the #7 car had Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and José María López behind the wheel, and the #8 car had Fernando Alonso, Sébastian Buemi, and Kazuki Nakajima.
The #8 car and drivers were the defending Le Mans winners, but this time around it was the #7 team that seemed to have the advantage. It started from pole position and Conway, the first man in the car, set the fastest-ever Le Mans race lap almost right out of the gates. Midway through the 24-hour race, the two cars were separated by only 8.6 seconds.
In the night, however, the #8 car began to fall behind. Toyota says it was as a result of aerodynamic balance caused by bodywork damage. Whatever the reason, the gap eventually grew to two minutes before stabilizing, and it seemed as though it would be a comfortable victory for the #7.
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In the final hour, everything still looked good. The drivers were told to bring the cars home safely. Toyota would not only get its second 1-2 Le Mans win, it would also manage to give the victor’s champagne to its other set of drivers, all three of whom had yet to win at the legendary race and were driving stupendously.
But in true Toyota fashion, drama struck in that last hour. On the 367th lap, López got the call to come into the pits for an unscheduled pit stop, as data back on the garage indicated one of the tires was undergoing a slow puncture. No problem — the gap to the #8 car was large enough to allow for a free pit stop.
However, a sensor issue resulted in the wrong tire being identified and replaced, which meant that López left the pits with a tire that was still deflating. He thus had to return to the pits once more, but not before completing a very slow lap around the 8.5-mile circuit. Toyota then changed all four tires on the #7 car, but by that time the deficit to the #8 car was too great to overcome in the little time remaining.
This led to a tense podium in which three Toyota drivers celebrated a miraculous victory and the three other drivers, who are thus still chasing that first Le Mans win, were unable to disguise the pain of their unlucky defeat.
Nonetheless, it was a great race overall and a worthy ending to the 2018-19 WEC season.
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