Despite ultimately being frustrated in his bid to win the race, Nicolas Lapierre wrote a new page in the story of Toyota Racing when he won an epic battle with the #1 Audi to lead the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Just minutes before the second Toyota somersaulted out of the event with Anthony Davidson at the wheel, Lapierre had engaged in a wheel-to-wheel, place-swapping, duel with fellow Frenchman Benoit Treluyer, the pair dicing for the lead despite being surrounded by slower traffic.
“I'm leaving the pits to start my fifth stint, the third on the same set of tyres - I know he's ahead of me and I don't have much time to ask questions," Lapierre recalled, "Honestly, I'm not thinking about where I'm going to overtake him. I attack and I see traffic ahead of him in the second chicane. I can take my chance at Mulsanne corner...
“I'm able to pass him at the exit of Mulsanne, [but] he passes me back at Arnage. I could have closed the door, but I prefer not to take any chances and I retake him at the exit of the corner. I know at that point that it's very important to pass at that spot. The Porsche Curves follow, and I know that he won't be able to pass me after that. And that's what I'm able to do.”
Asked whether he had ever been in such a battle before, Lapierre admitted that, despite going head-to-head with rivals throughout his career, nothing had carried such importance.
“In single-seaters certainly, and in endurance maybe in 2010 when I was fighting with Allan McNish at the start, but it was certainly less intense, and it wasn't for first place," he noted, "It was nice to fight over the course of several corners, to be neck-and-neck at high speeds. I think the fans must have liked it!
“I thought of [being in the lead] for an instant - to be in the lead [at Le Mans], it's something special! It was the first time that I had led at Le Mans, and the first time for Toyota since 1999. It's obviously special to be the leader of such an event, especially after a duel between two hybrid technologies [but], afterwards, you have to quickly put yourself back into the race to avoid losing focus.”
Ultimately, of course, leading the race proved academic, and Lapierre didn't get much time to enjoy his position as Davidson's accident brought out the safety car, under which the Toyota pitted and Kazuki Nakajima took over behind the wheel. The Japanese driver then collided with the DeltaWing at the restart, damaging the TS030, costing it precious time even before mechanical gremlins eventually accounted for its retirement.
“There's the good and the not so good," Lapierre admitted, looking back on the race as a whole, "I think you have to appreciate the team's performance for what it's worth. We stayed on the Audis' pace for six hours, and even better since we took the lead. I don't think that some people were expecting that. It shows that the car has good potential since this was only our first race, and it proves the strengths of the hybrid system developed by Toyota. On the other hand, we know that we must progress in several areas, such as reliability. We learned a lot.
"[Personally], the motivation stays the same - it's not more or less, but I simply tell myself that my personal progression since my arrival in endurance racing , and that of the team in the last few months, is really coming on. To see the two TS030 HYBRIDs in the top three, and commanding the race... I think, for an instant, we let ourselves dream a little. This motivates us to be even stronger for the next race and to work hard to reach our goal of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours.”