2016 24 Hours of Le Mans – Porsche snatches unlikeliest 18th victory
With ten minutes of the race to go, the no. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid crew of Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas believed their chance to win the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans was finally over after a slow puncture forced Jani to pit for new tyres just ten minutes from the chequered flag.
The stop for fresh rubber looked to have finally extinguished the no. 2 machine’s challenge after the trio had previously kept the leading no. 5 Toyota TS050’s advantage to just 30 seconds during the final hours.
However, as Kazuki Nakajima headed out onto the Mulsanne for the penultimate time with just six minutes left on the clock, the Japanese racer radioed to his team that the no. 5 entry had no power.
The Toyota crawled around to the start-finish line, stopping dead just after beginning what should have been its final lap as, moments later, Jani flashed through in the no. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid to snatch the most unlikely lead in Le Mans history.
As the Toyota crew looked on in disbelief, the Swiss racer ticked off his final lap in a leisurely 3m59s to take a record 18th victory for Porsche at the legendary French endurance race, a race that had, since the break of dawn on Sunday, looked destined to mark Toyota’s first triumph.
24 hours earlier, the race was forced to start behind the safety car after a heavy rain shower during the on-grid ceremonies flooded parts of the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.
When the cars were eventually released proper after 52 minutes, the track was nearly dry in places as many of the runners in other classes quickly switched to intermediate tyres.
Jani in the no. 2 Porsche led the way from Timo Bernhard in the sister no. 1 car as Weissach ran in front row formation until lap nine when the no. 6 Toyota of Mike Conway stormed into the lead, the 919 Hybrids struggling on their worn wet tyres.
The opening hours saw an incredible battle between all six manufacturer LMP1 entries as all six cars, at some point, led the race. However, the no. 7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro was the first to run into trouble, dropping out of contention in the sixth hour after having to replace a turbocharger.
As the track dried, the Porsches came to fore on Saturday afternoon only to see the Toyotas hit back as the race headed into the evening, the no. 6 TS050 cementing its lead ahead of the no. 1 Porsche, while the no. 5 Toyota was third ahead of the no. 2 919 Hybrid.
Into the eighth hour, Jani led a resurgence for the no. 2 machine though, catching and passing Bernhard on track to take second place while the second Audi – the no. 8 entry – also dropped out of contention for victory with a similar turbocharger problem to its sister machine.
Just after the eight-hour mark, the no.1 Porsche 919 Hybrid’s victory hopes were similar extinguished when Brendon Hartley had to return to the pits with a massively high water temperature just one lap into a stint.
The repair work – including replacing the water pump – would take over an hour, dropping the world championship-winning trio of Bernhard, Hartley and Mark Webber out of the top 50 overall. They would eventually finish 13th overall and fifth in the LMP1 class.
Through the night, the two Toyotas and the remaining Porsche battled hard, the no. 6 car leading from Jani, Lieb and Dumas in the no. 2 entry. The lead would swap back-and-forth during the dark hours, the two manufacturers running to different fuel and driver strategies.
Come the morning, it was the no. 5 Toyota though that had asserted itself at the head of the field, roughly 30 seconds ahead of the no. 2 Porsche. The 919 Hybrid had been running 13-lap stints to the TS050’s 14, forcing Porsche to make an extra stop and handing the advantage to the Japanese mark.
Despite the best effort of the Porsche crew, the no. 2 car could never make serious inroads into the no.5 Toyota’s lead, although the pressure from behind was at least released after the 22-hour mark when the third-placed no. 6 Toyota was forced to stop for four laps with a mechanical issue.
The 30-second status quo remained during the final hour and Toyota seemed destined for a first 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph when Jani had to pit on lap 381 with a slow puncture. However, the no. 5 car’s heartbreaking failure on the penultimate tour ultimately handed Jani, Lieb and Dumas and unexpected victory after 384 laps.
Unable to complete the final lap under the six-minute time limit, the no. 5 Toyota crew was not classified in the final reckoning. However, Porsche recognised the sterling effort of their Japanese compatriots, giving them a standard ovation after the race in the Porsche hospitality unit.
“First of all I would like to express my respect for the sensational performance which Toyota gave in this race. It was a great fight with them,” commended LMP1 vice president, Fritz Enzinger. “Shortly before the finish we had settled for second place until we suddenly claimed our second Le Mans victory in a row.”
The no. 6 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stéphane Sarrazin was classified second, three laps down, while the no. 5’s demise promoted Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval to third in the no. 8 Audi R18.
With double points awarded for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the result leaves the no. 2 Porsche crew on 94 points, 39 ahead of the no. 8 Audi with the no. 5 Toyota team a further point back in third. In the manufacturers’ battle, Porsche leads Audi by 32 points.