Toyota Takes Bittersweet Le Mans 24 Hour Victory, With Alonso, Nakajima And Buemi Sealing The Race And Championship
Toyota, as expected, dominated the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours. And of the Toyota pair, the #7 car driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López had a clear advantage over its sister car, particularly in Conway’s hands. For 23 of the 24 hours it appeared #7 was set fair, with only well-timed safety cars and the like getting the #8 Toyota near.
But this is Le Mans, where the race chooses you for victory rather than the other way around. Plus this is Toyota, whose ill-fortune in this race has in many eyes reached “curse” levels. With just over an hour of the race left a combination of the two struck. The #7 Toyota, in Lopez’s hands, slowed on the Mulsanne straight as the car’s tire pressure sensors suggested it had a front-right puncture. Lopez pitted and, to save time, only the offending wheel was changed rather than all four. A crucial mistake, as the sensor was wrong and the puncture was actually on the left-rear, forcing Lopez to cruise around the next lap too and pit again.
It all gave the #8 car a lead that it held on to for the rest of the way, winning by 16.9sec, meaning its driver trio of Fernando Alonso, Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi took back-to-back Le Mans victories as well as cemented the 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship crown, something a mere solid finish was going to ensure. But given the circumstances in which it had all arrived the mood on the podium was slightly muted.
Le Mans of course is also four races in one, and in LMP2 there was another back-to-back Le Mans winner which sealed the WEC title. In this case it was for the Signatech-Alpine trio of Nicolas Lapierre, André Negrão and Pierre Thiriet. This was Alpine’s third Le Mans victory in four years and the effort’s second LMP2 title after also triumphing in 2016. For Lapierre too it maintained his 100% Le Mans victory record, with now four wins in four LMP2 starts, three of which have come with Signatech. The car inherited the lead in the 19th hour when the #26 G-Drive Racing ORECA lost 20 minutes in a pitstop with a suspected starter motor problem.
Ferrari won the GTE Pro race for the first time since 2014, with James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Daniel Serra in the #51 AF Corse 488 GTE prevailing after a competitive fight. Safety car interventions meant it boiled down to a two-car battle between the Ferrari and the #63 Corvette. And it was resolved, appropriately, by the safety car, as the #63 was held at the end of the pitlane during a late safety car period, giving the #51 a comfortable minute’s lead. Meanwhile ninth place, after exhaust problems, for the #92 Porsche ensured Michael Christensen and Kévin Estre the GTE Pro title.
There was controversy in the GTE Am class. Keating Motorsports’ #85 Ford, driven by Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Felipe Fraga, was on-the-road victor. However the car was first given a time penalty that dropped it to second in class, behind the #56 Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR of Jörg Bergmeister, Egidio Perfetti and Patrick Lindsey, for “not meeting minimum complete fueling time”. Later the #85 Ford was disqualified altogether for a “total onboard fuel volume in excess of the permitted limit”.