Top 20 Stories of 2016
Top Stories of 2016, #7: Toyota's last-lap Le Mans heartbreak
In at number seven in our Top 20 stories of 2016 countdown, we look back on a remarkable Le Mans 24 Hours that delivered the cruellest imaginable sting in the tail for the luckless Toyota squad.
Within touching distance of the Japanese manufacturer's first ever Le Mans victory last June, the #5 TS050 Hybrid stopped, its misfortune rapidly hitting headlines the world over.
It was the motor racing equivalent of Devon Lock’s phantom jump within sight of the Grand National finish line in 1956. It was sporting drama played out in the cruellest of ways.
Even in the graveyard hours of the race, there are few times when the entire media centre at La Sarthe goes deathly quiet. Yet with approximately 200 seconds of the finish at this year’s race, a pin could have dropped.
When Kazuki Nakajima sat motionless on the finish line, on what turned out to be the penultimate lap, mouths were agape as the assembled press tried to process the enormity of what they were witnessing.
The events of that 383rd lap of 384 were unprecedented. Never before had the lead changed hands in such callous and pitiless fashion. The sight of the once clear leader, sat prone and defenceless and about to lose the most prestigious motor race in the world, will linger for as long as Le Mans is run.
The immediate aftermath will never be forgotten either. Within moments of Neel Jani taking the chequered flag for Porsche, Nakajima was being helped from the cockpit of his car by team manager John Steeghs and TMG vice president, Rob Leupen.
It was a distressing sight. Nakajima’s frame and gait appeared to wither as he was aided, completely distraught, from his car.
This writer watched on as first Audi's Oliver Jarvis and then others consoled their distressed adversaries in acts of supreme sportsmanship. Such tearful shock has rarely been seen at a race track before.
I saw Leupen as the podium ceremony was about to begin and approached, feeling like a drunk gate-crashing a funeral. The question I posed him, through professional need rather than any personal choice, barely registered. Words were not forthcoming, simply a stare in to the distance.
It was only an hour later, at the back of the Toyota pit, that Leupen found some words to try and explain what had just happened.
“Suddenly we got the information from Kazuki in the car that he was missing power. His race engineer [Jean-Philippe Pelaprat] and the pit wall reacted, but they couldn’t see anything on the data at that moment,” said Leupen. "Then the lap just never ended.”
“Before we came, we had issues to solve and we did, the team were fantastic," he continued. "The spirit was good in the team. We set up what seemed to be a nice conclusion, but there was a sting."
The emotional fallout was dealt with immaculately, and with absolute class, by not only Toyota, but also rivals Porsche and Audi. What it has done is to ensure that next season, the Toyota v Porsche duel at Le Mans will have a frisson like no other in recent times.
Toyota has to win this race more than ever now. The tension in the team's pit box, should one of its cars be leading again in the final moments next season, can be barely imagined.
Le Mans consistently serves up drama. But in 2016, the script, if read beforehand, would never have been thought credible.
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