Toyota breaks its Le Mans hoodoo and Fernando Alonso moves a step closer to the triple crown
Toyota cruised to a dominant win in the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours as Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima beat team-mates Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José Mariá Lopéz by more than a lap.
Fittingly, Toyota afforded Nakajima the final stint in the no8 to put to rest memories of 2016 when he coasted to a stop on the penultimate lap.
The new privateers found the 24 hours tough going, with only the third and fourth-placed Rebellion Racing inside the top 10 at the flag. The no3 Rebellion of Gustavo Menezes, Mathias Beche and Thomas Laurent headed team-mates Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani and Bruno Senna, 12 laps down.
While victory was never in doubt for the Japanese manufacturer, for much of the first half of the race the winning number was. The lead changed hands regularly during the opening third thanks to safety cars, slow zones and punctures falling in each car’s favour, but as darkness began to fall the no7 had built a lead of more than a minute. That doubled when the no8 was given a stop/go for speeding in a slow zone. Through an impressive and long night stint Alonso reigned in the leading car, but it was Nakajima who made what was to be the winning pass on Kobayashi as the sun began to rise.
Toyota had a scare in the closing stages when Kobayshi in the no7 missed a call to the pits and was forced to engage the 80kph slow zone limiter to save fuel and return to the pits, before a series of fuel regulation penalties for the no7 stretched the victorious gap even further.
The race had begun in dramatic fashion – and almost disastrously for Toyota – as Andre Lotterer in the no1 Rebellion collected DragonSpeed’s Ben Hanley at Dunlop on the opening lap and clipped the tail of a Toyota due to the nose of his Rebellion being insufficiently fastened. The German was able to bring the car back to the pits, without his front end, and rejoined the race with the whole field to navigate back through.
The ByKolles, too, had a disastrous start when Tom Dillmann failed to pull away onto the green flag lap and was sent to the back of the field. Its race came to a dramatic end in the fifth hour when Dominik Kraihamer and a Porsche touched through the Porsche Curves sending the ByKolles violently into the wall and bringing out the safety car – the first of many incidents through that reprofiled part of the track.
The SMP Racing BR1 of Mikhail Aleshin, Jenson Button and Vitaly Petrov was removed the reckoning early with an electrical issue, losing hours in the pits and eventually stopping on track more than 50 laps adrift. The sister car crashed out heavily during the night, with the DragonSpeed LMP1 also crashing out.
The new Ginettas had a difficult debut, managing a host of issues for both cars. One car finished, that of Charlie Robertson, Leo Roussell and Mike Simpson, 99 laps off the lead.
In LMP2, G-Drive led throughout after taking the lead following the opening pitstops, finishing fifth overall. Signatech Alpine claimed second, with Tristan Gommendy in the Graff-SO24 Oreca denying a charging Loïc Duval in the similar TDS car on the final lap.
TDS Racing, IDEC Racing and DragonSpeed’s LMP2 entry had been battling hard at the front in the opening hour, but when G-Drive reappeared in the lead it dominated. Panis-Barthez Competition had looked set to split the Oreca dominance in its Ligier, only for it to slip down the field in the final few hours.
Porsche dominated a brilliant GTE-Pro class with the ‘Pink Pig’ liveried RSR claiming a popular victory. It had been exchanging the lead in thrilling fashion with its Rothmans-liveried team-mate, only for the safety car for the ByKolles crash to split the pair by a minute when the second-placed Porche was forced to join the second safety car train.
That left Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor with a clear path to victory, albeit with some 19 hours to go.
The race for second provided the race’s real action, with the Ford GTs coming on stronger and stronger as the race wore on. Sebastien Bourdais and Fred Makowiecki raced hard, Bourdais believed Makowiecki had done so unfairly by excessively weaving on the Mulsanne, but no penalties were forthcoming and the pair continued to trade paint and places. The Porsche was eventually able to stretch clear, despite a stunning pass from Bourdais around the outside of the kink at Indianapolis, with Makowiecki, Gimmi Bruni and Richard Lietz completing a Porsche 1-2.
Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller completed the podium ahead of UK counterparts Harry Tincknell, Andy Priaulx and Tony Kanaan.
The division proved closely matched, with the BMWs, Ferraris and Corvettes all contending through the race in long trains of slipstreaming cars. Aston Martin, meanwhile was cast well adrift and propped up the field – once it had navigated the Am cars that it had qualified behind
The Dempsey-Proton Porsche of Julien Andlauer, Matt Campbell and Christian Ried claimed GTE-Am honours ahead of the Spirit of Race Ferrari of Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlco Fisichella and Thomas Flohr.
G-Drive has been stripped of its LMP2 victory at Le Mans after the team was found to have used an illegal component in its fuel rig to speed up its fuel stops.
TDS Racing, which this year runs the G-Drive programme, has also been excluded from the results from fourth place.
The decision hands victory to the Signatech Alpine of Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao and Pierre Thiriet, with Graff S024’s Vincent Capillaire, Tristan Gommendy and Jonathan Hirschi second and the United Autosports car of Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer up to third.
Ford’s fourth-placed GT of Harry Tincknell, Andy Priaulx and Tony Kanaan has been penalised 11 laps because Kanaan failed to hit the minimum driving time of six hours. He drove for five hours 16 minutes. The 11-lap penalty is calculated by divided the 44 minutes by the team’s fastest lap, dropping the team down to 12th in class.