Olympic cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy achieved his latest “gold medal” target when he finished the Le Mans 24-Hours on his first occasion competing in the world’s greatest endurance race. But even the Scot’s achievement was overshadowed by the dramatic conclusion to the race.
Having dominated the race, and controlling what should have been an unchallenged run to the line as it entered the penultimate lap with a comfortable 1min 24secs lead, Toyota was ultimately left devastated.
Bidding to win the race for the first time, the team was set for a choreographed finish, with Japan’s former Formula 1 driver Kazuki Nakajima behind the wheel of the No 5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid as it headed towards the chequered flag.
But two-thirds of the way round the famous 8.4-mile La Sarthe circuit, under clear blue skies, the Toyota inexplicably began to slow. Then, over the radio, Nakajima told the team: “I have no power.”
Bravely, Nakajima attempted to limp the car to the finish, but with one more lap remaining, the Toyota cruelly stopped just as he had crossed the start-finish line. In front of the packed grandstands, and as 265,000 spectators watched on screens round the circuit, the No 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid blasted past to take the lead.
A stunned, disbelieving crowd initially thought Nakajima had miscalculated the time and had stopped to celebrate. But it quickly became clear, as he sat in the car frantically trying to restart the Toyota, that something was wrong.
While the Porsche, in the hands of polesitter Neel Jani, continued to complete the final lap, the Toyota finally spluttered back into motion. But any hopes of marking the 25th anniversary of fellow Japanese car manufacturer Mazda’s win had gone.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the car then struggled round the final lap, eventually taking 11mins 53secs. However, under Le Mans rules, the time was too slow to be classified. Moments after crossing the line, the No 5 car was removed from the timing screens. While senior figures in the Toyota garage tried to remain calm, others wept uncontrollably.
The woes of the No 2 car, which were also played out in front of a global TV audience of millions, meant the sister No 6 car of Briton Mike Conway, Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin and Japan’s Samui Kobayashi, was promoted to second. Toyota has now finished second at Le Mans five times.
Audi, which endured a testing 24 hours with its brand new R18 Hybrid, took the final step on the podium with its No 8 car driven by England’s Oliver Jarvis, Brazilian Lucas di Grassi and Frenchman Loic Duval. The German manufacturer – whose new car is the most technologically advanced in the sport, and which is the first of a pioneering new breed of hybrid sportscars – uncharacteristically struggled for reliability.
“It’s certainly not gone as smoothly as we had hoped,” three-times winner, Dumfries racer Allan McNish, and who is now a pivotal figures at Audi, admitted. “But we’ll learn from this bigger and stronger.”
But in contrast to the abject disappointment at Toyota, Hoy was delighted with finishing on his first attempt.
Piloting his Nissan-powered Algarve Pro Racing Ligier LMP2 sportscar – partnered by Frenchman Andrea Pizzitola and Brit Michael Munemann – Hoy finished 12th in class and 18th overall.
“It’s been the most exhilarating experience so far,” the 40-year-old from Edinburgh said as he drank another celebratory beer. “Before the start of the race, our target was just to finish the race.
“People don’t realise how tough this race is. The mechanics sleeping in chairs, trying to grab a few minutes sleep in the garage; the physical and mental demands of a triple or quadruple stint; it’s a tough race.
“To make it to the finish, for me it’s a huge achievement. It’s like another gold medal. I’m really proud to have been part of this team.”