I Was There When Victory At Le Mans Slipped Away From Toyota
Update June 23: The official cause of the lead car’s failure has been added below—which sadly sounds like “a technical defect” on one of its minor components.
I write this still in a state of shock. I can’t bring myself to believe that the 24 Hours of Le Mans ended the way it did.
Let me back up a few paces: I had the honor of working alongside Toyota Gazoo Racing’s team photographer James Moy at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. I am well-acquainted with the team already, having stood in for James’ duties last year in Shanghai for the 6 Hour World Endurance Championship race.
As a somewhat seasoned photographer having worked with and provided images for teams ranging from small sports car racing teams, NASCAR teams, Indycar teams, and three different Formula 1 teams, I can tell you without any hesitation—and without disrespect to those I have worked with previously—that the moment you walk into the Toyota garage, you are family. James and I spent the entire Le Mans week, from Monday through Sunday night eating, drinking, talking, traveling to and from the circuit with them, attending the very classified team briefings, laughing, and as it turns out, crying with them.
It is rare that photographers are given such exclusive access to a team. James and I both knew the race strategy and pit strategy that Porsche and Audi would have paid good money to know. And having that trust in the team is a very unique and wonderful thing. It makes you feel part of the effort, part of the race. We weren’t just there taking photos for the team, we were part of the team.
The day before the race, we rode to the driver’s parade with the six LMP1 drivers that Toyota has in its two cars. Each are very different from each other. Anthony Davidson always has a funny story to tell. Always laughing. Always joking. He had me cracking up all week. Sebastian Buemi is quiet, but has a big personality when he lets it come out. He spent the ride to Le Mans city center making funny Snapchats with Davidson, much to all of our amusement. Kazuki Nakajima is the reserved Japanese driver you would expect he would be. His English is perfect, he has a quiet sense of humor, and seems very comfortable in the team. Stéphane Sarrazin is all business. He is a supreme racing driver but doesn’t let his emotions really show what he’s thinking and feeling. Conway is the typical Brit. Polite. Serious. Always had a little banter with one of his driver teammate’s going. Last but not least, Kamui Kobayashi: the guy lives in a world of his own, and his world is awesome. He does what he wants, when he wants to do it. He oozes personality. He and Kazuki could not be more different, though they come from the same culture.
All told, the atmosphere between the 6 drivers is really special. You can tell straight off the bat that Toyota has an all-star lineup. They may not have a super star driver like Porsche has in Hartley or Webber, but together, the Toyota team make up one of the strongest pairings currently racing sports cars.
Saturday morning. The final team briefing, the top Japanese brass from Toyota are there to cheer on the team from start to finish. With a rousing speech, translated from Japanese to English, the final words to the mechanics and drivers was to fight from start to finish. Everyone was ready for the coming 24 hour war between Porsche and Audi.
At 3 pm, in the pouring rain, the race began, although it was sadly behind the safety car and not a proper racing start. 45 minutes later, the safety car released the 60 cars to do battle on the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. Within a few laps, the Toyotas had taken the lead from Porsche: the fight was on. I was excited, but knowing what a long race it is, worked to control my enthusiasm.
The hours ticked by, I roamed from spot to spot. Even getting around the circuit is a pain in the ass. Nothing is easy, but being in the right place at the right time can pay dividends. James and I alternated coming back to the media center every few hours to send photos to Toyota for press releases and social media posts, we would then head back out on track, or to the pit lane.
I spent most of the short night in Le Mans (the summer solstice means that it is only truly dark from 11 pm–5:30 am) out on the infamous Mulsanne straight doing long exposures of the cars blasting their way through the forest lined public roads at 215 mph. I had the 10€ Radio Le Mans headset over my ear from start to finish. The coverage they provide is second to none, and following the race without it is nearly impossible. As morning, broke, Toyota still led, narrowly. Without much of a sunrise, I took the opportunity to sleep for 45 minutes. Having been awake for well over 27 hours at that point, I passed out on the media center floor in my fire suit.
As the hours counted down, James and both started to realize this was real, and it was happening. Each time we went in the garage, we got smiles and handshakes from the mechanics, drivers and management asking how it was out there. Every minute that passed made us realize that the dream of a Toyota win could in fact come true: a team that so deserved Le Mans success might finally get it.
With an hour to go, we put our plan together for the podium. This was going to happen. We couldn’t believe it. The two cars had been nearly flawless all day. The #5 car had run without issue, and had been beating the Porsche #2 contender fairly and squarely around the iconic circuit. Standing outside the garage with 35 minutes or so left, James and I both photographed the final pitstop for both cars. Each car’s stop was flawless, as they had been all day. The car came in, took the fuel it needed to finish the race, and when the chief mechanic raised the “lollipop”, it raced off with a whoosh of its electric motor, silent as an owl hunting at night. The acceleration is truly frightening. And that was that!
We were in the final minutes of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. James was to be with the team on pit wall to cover the celebrations, I was to be the first photographer in line in front of the podium when the drivers would come down the pits, all on top of the car celebrating with everyone clapping as they passed by and waving Japanese flags. From where I was waiting with the other photographers for our chance to run to the podium, I could see one of the TV screens. I was no longer listening to Radio Le Mans, but was staring straight at the Rolex clock that counts down from 24 hours.
With something like 2 minutes remaining, everyone started to yell and scream and curse. I looked up the screen, and it all went from dream to nightmare. The leading car was crawling through the Porsche curves, and eventually stopped in front of the pit wall in front of the main grandstand. James told me later that all the engineers could do was stare at the car, with completely blank expressions, and in total disbelief. With two minutes to go in a 24 hour race, the lead Toyota suffered a technical defect on a connector on the air line between the turbo charger and the intercooler, leaving it without sufficient power to finish the race. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.
The podium at Le Mans is one of the most exciting places to be. A 24 hour race is brutal. Grueling. I can’t even begin to tell you how much energy it takes to cover one. You feel something between drunk, beaten, bullied, exhausted, but grateful to have such an amazing job that allows you to have access to an event like this. But I felt nothing looking up at the podium.
One Toyota car had finished second, an Audi had inherited third with the #5 Toyota’s disqualification, and the very lucky Porsche #2 drivers stood atop the podium having taken the win on the last lap. I barely even wanted to shoot the celebrations. It all felt wrong. I know the saying, “You don’t win Le Mans, Le Mans lets you win” and, “To finish first, first you have to finish”. But I think I speak for everyone that saw it in person and on TV, that the Toyota team were the winners. The Audi drivers even went as far as to say they would give up their podium to have the Toyota up there instead.
Following the race and the podium, I wanted to badly to shoot the Toyota team’s emotions. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t point my lens at the people who I had come to care so much about over the last week as they cried and hugged and sat in complete disbelief staring at the floor or ceiling. Helmets were thrown, tears were shed by all. It was a very hard thing to witness. But that’s racing, I guess. The aftermath of the race has only made them stronger I think. I can only hope that they come back next year wanting to finish what they started.
I know they can. And I hope I’m there to celebrate with them, and cry happy tears when they do.