24 Hours of Le Mans: When It Counted Most, Toyota Reliability Vanished

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Toyota didn’t deserve this. No matter how many swerving gold Camrys have ever cut you off or blocked your way, they didn’t deserve this. Not just defeat, but utter humiliation on global television and in front of a crowd of 263,500. “I have no power,” radioed driver Kazuki Nakajima to his pit as the #5 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 hybrid sat inert with one lap to go in the race. Not in the pastoral woods of the Mulsanne straight or the Indianapolis curves, where Nakajima could have cried into his helmet in private, but right on the start/finish line in front of packed garages and grandstands, the Japanese flag having already been brought to the winner’s podium to await the victors.

And that was that. The Porsche 919 hybrid passed it moments later with Neel Jani at the wheel and Porsche’s 18th Le Mans overall victory went into the record books. It was a stunning upset for Porsche and its various cars in LMP1 and GTE Pro, which all weekend long had been proving that once bad luck starts at Le Mans, it has the momentum of a freight train.

After 23 hours and 57 minutes of dicing with Porsche for the overall lead of the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota had it in the bag. Finally! The company had finished second in the French classic in 1992, 1999, and 2013 but had never won. It was moments away from becoming only the second Japanese manufacturer ever to win Le Mans after many large and well-funded factory efforts from both Toyota and Nissan. The previous and only Japanese victory, by Mazda, was 25 years ago.

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But then the 2016 Le Mans went from hilariously eventful, with an opening rainstorm and close dicing between the Ford GT and the Ferrari 488 all night long, to completely bizarre in the last third of the second-to-last lap, when Nakajima appeared to slow. The immediate theory was that he was waiting for his sister car, the #6 TS050, driven by Stéphane Sarrazin and running third, to form up for one of those group photos that manufacturers love to finish Le Mans with.

But it didn’t make sense; due to lap position, Nakajima was actually behind Sarrazin, and the Porsche was closing fast. The commentators exhorted Nakajima to forget ceremony and step on it. Riveted to the monitors, one journalist near us in the media center was heard to mutter, “C’mon, Toyota, stop f—ing around and just win the f—ing race!”

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But Nakajima wasn’t trying to create a pretty picture; something was fatally wrong with the moonshot hybrid, and it rolled to a stop right at the start/finish line in front of an utterly gobsmacked crowd. The commentators were apoplectic now, spinning theories that Nakajima must have mistakenly believed he had won the race when in fact there was still a lap to go. But Nakajima was no doubt a ball of grief and shame at this point.

The camera flashed to the Toyota garage, where the Japanese team managers looked on perfectly stone-faced. In a nation where embarrassment and humiliation is taken seriously enough to warrant suicide, stoicism is the only honorable response. The flag dropped, and as each car crossed the line, the formerly leading Toyota dropped slowly down the standings, ultimately landing in a provisional finishing spot of 45th.

While the commentators on Radio Le Mans devolved into near gibberish at the unbelievable turn of events, Audi Motorsport chief Wolfgang Ullrich and ex–Red Bull Formula 1 and current Porsche 919 driver Mark Webber pushed their way through the throngs in pit lane down to the Toyota garage to commiserate with their band of brothers. Anyone who has run a 24-hour car race at the top level must know, to the ounce, the weight of the grief that Toyota was bearing. People filing out the back of the Toyota garage had 10,000-foot stares or were weeping. Toyota Motorsport GmbH technical director Pascal Vasselon was almost too emotional to speak to a Radio Le Mans reporter who had been standing by, waiting for what he assumed would be a victory interview. “It’s so hard to accept it,” Vasselon said. “We cannot accept it.”

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