Two in a row for Toyota: 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours race reportby Lawrence Butcher on 16th June 2019
Toyota sweeps to a second-successive victory at the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours race; a final hour puncture sees the win handed to Fernando Alonso, Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi
Kazuki Nakajima's No8 Toyota takes the chequered flag to win Photo: Motorsport Images
Barring disaster, Toyota was always going to win the 87th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Even with adjustments to the Equivalence of Technology (EoT) formula to try and bring the privateers up to pace, the Japanese marque held an almost unassailable advantage.
The governing bodies had done what they could with the regulatory tools available. The privateers were as light as was feasible (just 815kg for the Rebellions compared to the Toyota’s 888kg), with as much fuel flow as their engines could utilise (115kg/hour compared to 80kg/hour for Toyota), and no limit on fuel use per lap.
Even with these adjustments, the hybrid Toyotas had speed where it counted: out of the corners. With the hybrid system on full power, they packed around 1000bhp (c.580bhp from the engine, plus 400bhp from the front and rear electric motors). The best of the privateers had 700bhp, maybe 750bhp with a following wind.
This power difference was not apparent in the Toyotas’ top speeds – down the Mulsanne the privateers carried almost a 15kph advantage (347-8kph compared to 335kph) – but in their corner exit speeds. The privateers could reach a higher top speed, but with their power advantage and four-wheel drive, the Toyotas could accelerate faster, thus spending longer at top speed. Hence why they were quicker by half a second in qualifying through sector 2 (which incorporates the Mulsanne) compared to the next best privateer.
Corner exit speed established Toyota's dominance Photo: Motorsport Images
Factor in that, and without the need to match now-departed Porsche and Audi in the pace stakes, Toyota’s development program has been almost solely reliability focused. Plus a one lap per stint advantage over the privateers (thanks to the regulations governing hybrid and non-hybrid cars), not to mention being a works outfit, with all of the resources that entails, even on a much-restricted budget compared to previous years. It was clear that the only thing that could beat Toyota was Le Mans itself.
It's a threat that the team knows well and it came to pass late in the race. A slow puncture for the leading Toyota was followed by an almighty error, when a faulty tyre sensor resulted in the wrong wheel being changed.
It demoted the fastest car of the race — and deserved winner — to second place behind the slower car of Alonso, Nakajima and Buemi. The history books, however, still record the predicted Toyota 1-2.
So while the 2019 running of the race could not, in truth, be described as a classic, it was not short of the drama, across the classes, that gives the event its irresistible appeal.
No50 Larbre Competition Ligier during qualifying Photo: Motorsport Images
The weather in the run-up to the race could best be described as mixed: cooler than usual conditions, interspersed with heavy rain showers meant that the first sessions of qualifying and practice (held on Wednesday) took place on a drying track.
There was a potentially race-defining moment in the first qualifying session, a collision between the No7 Toyota, driven by Mike Conway, and Roberto Gonzalez’s Dragon Speed LMP2 Oreca, which was re-joining the track following a spin at the Ford Chicane. Not only did the crash necessitate a new chassis for the No7, but Conway was also deemed to be at fault for ignoring yellow flags and placed under caution. If he was caught at any point in the race for the same offence, the penalty would be a three-minute stop and go.
It would be second qualifying, early Thursday evening, that ultimately determined who took the pole. Sandbags were well and truly emptied; with a dry track and taking advantage of clear traffic conditions early in the session, the No7 Toyota took 1.5 seconds out of its Wednesday time, Kamui Kobayashi posting a 3 min 15.497sec lap.
Close on its heels was the No8 Toyota, with Kazuki Nakajima four-tenths down, at 3min 15.908sec. At the close of Q2, the Toyotas looked set to dominate the privateer competition; the No11 SMP with Mikhail Aleshin at the helm trailing the pole mark by nearly 1.5 seconds. Meanwhile, Rebellion Racing suffered what would be the first of two engine failures for its naturally aspirated Gibson V8s. No3 driver Thomas Laurent’s car expiring at Mulsanne.
SMP's Orudzhev was just three-tenths of a second off the No8 Toyota in qualifying Photo: Motorsport Images
SMP driver Egor Orudzhev made a valiant effort to match the Toyotas, seeking to capitalise on a clear track early in the third and final session. He pulled the No17 SMP to within half a second of Toyota, clocking an impressive 3 min 16.159sec, putting him three-tenths from the No8. The starting order ending up Toyota No7, No8 and the No17 SMP.
Despite the privateers being unable to match the outright pace of the Toyota’s, this should not mask how impressive the efforts of Rebellion, with the R13, and SMP with the BR1 (along with their respective development partners, Oreca and Dallara) were. Both cars lapped the la Sarthe circuit faster than either Porsche or Audi ever managed with the 919 or R18.
However, it is likely Toyota had more in the tank if needed, with one well-informed engineer suggesting reserve pace of at least a second. This theory backed up by the fact that Kobayashi stated post-qualifying: “I was hoping I could improve on my lap record, but I was missing a little bit of time. Two years ago, the track conditions and traffic were perfect; it wasn’t quite the same this time.” In 2017, his sensational qualifying lap was completed in 3 min 14.791sec.
The LMP2 and GTE battles were as close as ever, though it seemed Oreca chassis remained in the ascendancy in the P2 class, taking the top three qualifying spots with the Pastor Maldonado-driven No28 TDS Racing on pole, followed by the No31 Dragon Speed and No36 Signatech Alpine (an Oreca despite the Alpine branding).
At the close of the session, the No39 Graff Oreca actually topped the timing sheets but was stripped of its time post-session following driver Tristan Gommendy’s failure to stop at the pitlane weighbridge when instructed.
Aston Martin was on top after qualifying. The race brought less success Photo: Motorsport Images
In GTE-Pro, it was a four-way fight between Aston Martin, Ford, Corvette and Porsche, with Aston Martin coming out on top following an exceptional lap from Marco Sorensen in the No95, edging out Ford’s Harry Tincknell in the No67 GT by a mere tenth. Corvette took the last podium spot, but driver Antonio Garcia was 0.7 seconds down on the Ford.
However, as GTE is a BoP (Balance of Performance) class, there were to be regulation adjustments post qualifying. Notably, Aston Martin Racing (AMR) was stung with a reduction in permitted boost for its twin turbocharged V8 engine (0.03 bar across from 4000-7200 rpm), in addition to a two litre reduction in its fuel tank capacity (from 98-96l). Small changes, but ones which would prove decisive in a drum-tight class, particularly when combined with that car's high level of tyre wear. AMR did benefit from a 5kg weight break, but this was neutralised by all of the other GTE contenders, with the exception of Corvette, netting the same weight loss.
2019 Le Mans 24 Hours race: Saturday afternoon
No7 Toyota takes the lead at the start Photo: Motorsport Images
When the flag dropped, those watching the race were reminded that modern Le Mans is as much a sprint as an endurance event, the leading cars setting off at a blistering pace. Toyota dropped into the low 3min 17sec bracket; Rebellion and SMP ran sub-3 min 20sec.
Gustavo Menezes in the No3 Rebellion jumped Vitaly Petrov in the No11 SMP into the first turn but neither had an answer to the Toyota’s pace. After just two laps the No7 Toyota with Conway at the wheel held a five-second buffer over the sister car, driven by Sébastien Buemi, which in turn had pulled out 4.5 seconds from the battling Menez and Petrov. Buemi admitted after the race: “I started the race wondering if we could have the pace to match car seven and within about five laps, I realised it was going to be impossible.”
Those hoping for a frantic opening clash in GTE were not to be disappointed either. In the first laps, Tincknell in the No95 Aston, Nicki Thiim in the No67 Ford and Antonio Garcia in the No63 Corvette diced fiercely for position.
"I ran wide and got junk on the tyres. It was amazing how many spots I dropped just through that one little thing. That shows the fine line in this category"
As the race matured, Ford and Aston steadily dropped back through the order, leaving the top four as a Corvette-Porsche battle in the opening two hours. The Astons, in particular, suffered, with Thiim pushed down to 12th by lap 23. The Fords would claw back some of their losses, but Aston would have a punishing race.
Two and a half hours into the race, the No51 AF Corse Ferrari had come into contention. The GTE-Pro class would develop into a four-way fight between Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette and Ford, with the upper hand swinging between the leaders.
Speaking after the car’s retirement, No64 Corvette driver Oliver Gavin described the early lead battles in GTE as “very aggressive, very intense racing. In the back of your mind, you are thinking we have a lot of racing to be done, but it was pretty wild now, thinking about it.” Highlighting the tight margins in the class, he continued, “I ran a little bit wide near the end of a lap and got a bunch of junk on the tyres. I just couldn’t get them cleaned up for a bit. It was amazing how many spots I dropped just through that one little thing. That shows the fine line in this category.”
Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette and Ford battled for GTE-Pro honours Photo: Motorsport Images
Back with LMP1, by around the five-hour mark, both SMPs had managed to close down on the No3 Rebellion, briefly leapfrogging it during a round of pitstops. All would change following the next round of stops and a safety car due to a heavy crash for Marcel Fassler’s No64 Corvette, which clipped the 88 Dempsey Proton GTE-Am Porsche of Satoshi Hoshino at Porsche Curves, closing the field back up.
This allowed Laurent in the Rebellion to jump past the No17 SMP in the pits and then execute a bold move on the No11 of Mikhail Aleshin around the outside of the Porsche Curves to retake third. However, Laurent’s bravery would not be rewarded for long. Minutes later he crashed at the second chicane as his car snapped right into the barriers.
Fassler's Corvette crash triggered a safety car Photo: Motorsport Images
He made it back to the pits with miraculously little damage, the team only needing to replace the car’s nose, turning it around in a little over three minutes. He exited the pits still leading the sister car (which was trying to recover from its early time loss due to a tyre pressure monitoring system issue), but almost a lap down on the SMPs.
Fassler’s crash was to prove fortuitous for the No8 Toyota, in which Nakajima had been chasing down Jose Maria Lopez in the No7. He had closed the gap to around 35 seconds and pitted while the slow zones, triggered by the Corvette off, were in place. As the No7 pitted, green flag running resumed. Thus the No8 was travelling at a much faster pace than the No7 during their respective stops.
The cumulative effect of this sequence of events was that the half minute lead of the No7 became a 25-second deficit to the No8. However, a further safety car shortly after, to clear up of debris from Laurent’s crash, saw the No7 close to within a second. As the safety car pitted, Lopez was able to repass the No8 for the lead. Then, just after the seventh hour, a mistake by Lopez, running wide at Arnage, allowed Nakajima back past.
Safety car inevitably benefitted some drivers at the expense of others Photo: Motorsport Images
This would set the pattern for much of the lead battle into and through the night. The on-track action was tight between the cars, but a true cut and thrust fight never developed as both were under instruction not to pass on track without authorisation from the pitwall. It was, though, evident that the No7 had the measure of the No8 and was the quicker car.
Fassler and then Laurent’s incidents also served to push the GTE-Pro pack back together. Just under a quarter of the way into the race, the top seven GT racers were within seven seconds of each other. In an impressive feat, as the fifth hour of the race closed, the No51 AF Corse Ferrari, driven by Daniel Serra, took the lead of the class, having started out in twelfth place. Unfortunately, this close-quarter melee wouldn’t last, as further safety cars through the night separated the field once more.
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Just after midnight, there was an extended safety car period which marked the end of the road for the pole-winning No95 Aston, compounding an already trying race for the team. Having dropped far from the lead, Marco Sorensen had a huge off on the high-speed section of the track running to Indianapolis.
The early hours of the morning then claimed another high-profile scalp, as the highest-placed privateer, the No17 SMP crashed heavily, exiting the Porsche Curves backwards into the wall with driver Orudzhev a passenger. This allowed the No3 Rebellion to move into third place, Menezes having already closed with and passed the No11 driven by Petrov. However, Rebellion’s resurgence would not survive the early light of Sunday morning.
Rebellion failed to get the rub of the green Photo: Motorsport Images
Despite a delay in the pitlane due to a lightboard issue, the No3 was well placed in third, but the remaining SMP was chasing hard. As night turned to day, Rebellion’s luck shifted for the worse.
The No3 car received a three-minute penalty for a clerical error – the team gave the wrong tyre serial numbers to the pitlane officials – dropping it behind the No11, albeit only by a couple of seconds, and Menezes set out in pursuit. From here on, the problems for the Swiss outfit became decisive.
Menezes span out a few laps later then, at around 9.30 in the morning, the timing screens reported the No3 as being slow out of Mulsanne. When the car limped back to the pits, it was clear it had a brake-related issue, which would take some eight laps to rectify. The result being the No1 car finally became the lead Rebellion, three laps down on the No11 SMP, having never fully recovered from its early race delay. The No3 dropped to 14 laps off the lead. Barring a disaster for the remaining SMP, Rebellion were out of the podium mix.
At the sharp end of P1, the two Toyotas continued to extend their lead, with the No7 gradually opening up a gap on the No8, the trio of Nakajima, Alonso and Buemi unable to keep with Conway, Kobayashi and Lopez.
No26 G-Drive was in contention for LMP2 victory... until Sunday morning Photo: Motorsport Images
The contest in LMP2 was not as heated as it has been in previous years. Signatec Alpine driver Nicolas Lapierre overtook Anthony Davidson's No31 DragonSpeed in the first two laps, with the pole-sitting TDS Oreca out front. The order shifted slightly through the opening hours, with a two-horse race developing between the No36 Signatech car and the No26 G-Drive Racing Oreca, the pair pulling out a lead of over a minute from the rest of the LMP2 field; a duel that carried through the night into Sunday morning.
Early LMP2 podium contenders DragonSpeed, a team that had a wretched race in both P1 and P2 classes, were put out of contention in the 17th hour of the race, Pastor Maldonado punting hard into the Armco at Tetre Rouge. This compounded DragonSpeed’s disappointment, as its P1-entered BR1 suffered a plethora of issues leading to its retirement, having managed just 78 laps.
The jousting between G-Drive and Signatech came to an end on Sunday morning. They had been dicing back and forth, at one point their pitstops totally synchronised. With just over five and half hours remaining, G-Drive suffered a starter motor problem dropping it out of contention. Signatech retained the lead with the No38 Jackie Chan DC-Racing Oreca in second a lap down and TDS Racing finishing off the podium in third, a further lap down.
Sunday: Le Mans decides
Porsche took second and third places in the GTE-Pro category Photo: Motorsport Images
A prolonged safety car period with three and a half hours to go, following a heavy off for the No39 Racing Team Nederland Dallara would have a decisive effect on the GTE-Pro running order. The No63 Corvette and No51 Ferrari had been trading the lead as they moved in and out of pitstops, with the AF Corse Ferrari holding a theoretical advantage, a pitstop in hand.
The deployment of the safety car for the P2’s off compounded this advantage, leaving the Corvette both a stop down and two and a half minutes behind on track. It was a situation that driver Jan Magnussen promptly made worse by spinning off, damaging the front of his car. This left the ‘Vette running seventh, gifting second and third in class to the chasing No91 and No93 Porsches. With significant gaps between the leading three, and little pace differential between the cars, this would be the finishing order in the GTE-Pro class.
Sunday morning into afternoon, teams tend to go into survival mode, the end is in sight and caution trumps bold moves. However, as the dying hour of the race dawned, drama, as is so often the case at Le Mans, struck. The until-then dominant No7 Toyota, with Lopez at the wheel, had to pit not once, but twice for apparent punctures, on consecutive laps. Its lead of almost a lap quickly turned to a 58-second deficit to the Nakajima-driven No8, which blasted past as the No7 pulled in for the second time.
Alonso and Buemi celebrate atop the No8 car, as Nakajima drives it to the podium Photo: Motorsport Images
As it would transpire, there was only ever one puncture, to the right rear. A sensor failure had indicated the wrong tyre, meaning the No7 left the pits on from its first stop with a new right front, but still-punctured rear.
Such can be the cruel nature of Le Mans, the No7 crew, clearly with the faster race pace, saw victory slip away. Lopez chased hard, but ultimately the No8 crossed the line in the lead, Toyota choosing not to order a position swap.
It was a lucky day for the No8 crew, Alonso capturing the essence of Le Mans perfectly, saying, “I feel for my team-mates [in the No7] but the race chose us today.” So it was, the No8 car team secured both a second Le Mans win on the trot and the 2018-19 WEC drivers title to boot.
Photo: Motorsport Images