Toyota scores second consecutive Le Mans win
The 24-hour race at Le Mans can span the gamut of human emotions, from triumph to tragedy. The 2019 edition of the event was no different. The crew of Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi, and Kazuki Nakajima, in a Toyota TS050 Hybrid, was triumphant, earning former F1 champion Alonso his second consecutive overall win at the Circuit de la Sarthe, while Toyota teammates Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway, and José María López experienced heartbreak in the number 7 TS050, finishing second.
With only about an hour left to go in the endurance race, number 7 was running in the lead with López at the wheel, about two minutes ahead of the other Toyota factory LMP1. Then, one of #7’s sensors indicated a deflating right front tire, so López pitted. The team decided to just change the one tire and López went back out in the lead, only to find out that his right rear was in fact punctured. After the race, it was determined that the tire pressure monitoring system had a glitch, indicating that the wrong tire was punctured. López limped around the track and returned to the pits, this time getting a full complement of new rubber, but in the meantime, he lost the lead to Nakajima by about a minute.
“This victory was totally unexpected,” Alonso told Autoweek. “I think we didn’t have the pace over the 24 hours; we didn’t have the pace of car 7.”
Conway, whose car dominated most of the race, called the reversal of fortune a “kick in the guts.”
“We had a car we could really fight with and were looking good for a long, long time,” he said. “It wasn’t to be, but that’s Le Mans.”
When asked about the decision to change only the one tire at first, Toyota LMP1 team director Rob Leupen told the Independent, “The simple question was asked why we didn’t change all four tyres to be safe,” Leupen said. “We didn’t do that. It’s all in the game and then you have to make a decision.”
Leupen said that the team had discussed allowing the #7 car to retake the lead. “We thought about doing something, but that wouldn’t have been correct.”
While the #7 car was faster and López was lowering the gap, Toyota team orders don’t allow intrateam racing for position.
“We talked it through with the drivers and I think we did the right thing. Le Mans chooses its winner again,” said Leupen.
Toyota had the only factory-based LMP1 team in the race, as Porsche has, for the meantime, withdrawn from Le Mans prototype racing, having previously dominated at Le Mans. The independent SMP Racing team’s Stoffel Vandoorne, Vitaly Petrov, and Mikhail Aleshin took third place in LMP1 in a BR Engineering BR1 car.
LMP2 was won by Signatech Alpine with an ORECA-Gibson 07 and Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negro, and Pierre Thiriet driving.
Ferrari’s factory AF Corse team won the GTE Pro class with James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi, and Daniel Serra driving. That team had been closely racing the #63 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R into Sunday morning until Jan Magunssen crashed the Corvette going through the Porsche Curves. The Corvette team had a miserable Le Mans. That same section of the course had also taken the #64 Corvette out earlier when Marcel Fässler got tagged from behind and had a heavy crash. Fässler was taken to a hospital for a precautionary CT scan and then released. Porsche took second and third place in the class.
A Riley Tech Ford GT won the GTE Amateur class, leading most of the race with Jeroen Bleekemolen, Felipe Fraga, and car owner Ben Keating driving, but a penalty for Keating spinning his tires while leaving the pits made their margin of victory only 44 seconds.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is held every June. Next year’s race is scheduled for June 13-14, 2020.