Le Mans 24 Hours: Returning to where tears and champagne flow

Last year's heart-breaking end to Toyota's victory charge demonstrates how the magic and passion of Le Mans 24 Hours burns so brightly. Now it is time to return.
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050-Hybrid: Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima
#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050-Hybrid: Sebastien Buemi, Anthony…
© Jakob Ebrey Photography

By Haydn Cobb

12 months can be a lifetime in motorsport but curiously returning to the Circuit de la Sarthe for the first time since last June, the emotions are familiar to how we left it on that fateful Sunday last June.

The story has become one which will be trotted out year on year in the folklore of the Le Mans 24 Hours, one to say 'I was there' when Toyota saw its dream of victory struck a cruel blow inside the final five minutes by a mechanical breakdown.

The story below is how the emotions overrode the occasion, when the flags and fans fell silent and when a win for Porsche was humbly but awkwardly accepted.

Walking around pitlane during the traditional 'Class of 2017' photoshoot whenever the name 'Toyota' is mentioned by the forming crowds and media it is quickly followed by 'they have to win it this year'.

And heck, do they know it. Not only is it expanding its effort to a three-car LMP1 charge this year - while with no Audi, two Porsche LMP1 entries and the single ByKolles Racing effort it effectively makes a vastly unbalanced three v three - every one of Toyota's days since Le Mans have been purely focused on rewriting those final five minutes.

In a 24 hour race like Le Mans rarely does the result become decided by the final few minutes but the heart rates will be doubled if a TS050 Hybrid leads approaching the final lap.

In sport where fate can feel like a primary contributor to success, everything points to 2017 being Toyota's year.

If the Japanese manufacturer finds its way to the top step this Sunday afternoon the champagne and tears will flow once more, followed by those haunting memories and emotions.

Take a look back a the initial reaction to Toyota's cruel loss at last year's Le Mans 24 Hours.

Originally published 23rd June 2016

Let's start with an admission. This was the first year this reporter has attended Le Mans 24 Hours and before travelling had looked to pick up as much insider knowledge to hopefully not get too lost.

The one reoccurring subject - aside from the big question of sleep (three hours in a rental car) - was prepare to be emotional. I'm no stranger to emotions but I underestimated what I was being primed for.

On three separate occasions I witnessed grown men, some in the highest roles of the sport, openly crying before, during and after the race. Not only is Le Mans tagged as the greatest race in the world it also carries huge amounts of emotional baggage.

Much of this is down to the history of the event and the personal connection these individuals have to the Circuit de la Sarthe. Normally, if reputation, finances or emotions are hit (looking at Nissan's LMP1 failure last year) teams will not return to make the same mistakes twice.

Toyota has been coming to Le Mans since the 1980s, starting with Dome-prepared Group C cars before progressing to GT-One until it unleashed its LMP1 hybrid mega-beast in 2012, but is yet to walk away with the big trophy.

This must pain the Toyota hierarchy no end but this year the anguish will be notched up to its maximum because the #5 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima had won the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours.

It had built the best car and the drivers had produced flawless stints. What it couldn't have foreseen was a combustion engine lasting 23 hours and 57 minutes. Plainly but painfully in a 24-hour race that isn't enough.

Creature comforts: Gerard Neveu, CEO of the FIA World Endurance Championship, hugs Toyota chiefs at the back of the Le Mans paddock after its heart-breaking mechanical failure

Questions will remain about why and whether it could have been avoided, some might get answered in the coming weeks. One question we already know the answer to is Toyota had the race won until its mechanical woe snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and jammed a dagger into Toyota's heavy hearts.

Defeats in motorsport are met with a common set of emotions; anger, sadness and disappointment with a thorough investigation to avoid the same errors. The analytical approach will have already started but the initial reaction was something of a phenomenon.

Firstly, confusion rained down when Nakajima stopped on the home straight after the start/finish line which had most onlookers thinking he had pulled up to celebrate a lap too early. After he failed to get moving again the realisation sent shockwaves through the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Choke hold: Kazuki Nakajima steps out of the stricken #5 Toyota TS050 on the home straight with victory in sight

Confusion turned into the tears pouring inside the Toyota garage, some members falling to their knees at the sight, while a ripple of celebration arose in Porsche. The premeditated Toyota flags in the crowds fell sharply as most struggled to comprehend what was happening.

Then the most surreal moment. There was no cheering or jeering, only the noise of over 250,000 motorsport fans coming to terms with the most dramatic finishes in the history of Le Mans 24 Hours.

The atmosphere seemed to neutralise any Porsche celebrations and what stood out was the respect and grace the Porsche chiefs and drivers showed to Toyota.

Unprompted, key members walked over to the Toyota garage to comfort and support the rivals they'd been fighting non-stop for 24 hours. The outpouring of sportsmanship made sure there really wasn't a dry eye to be found.

The magic of Le Mans remains in its many different forms but the emotional pain Toyota endured will scar until the Japanese manufacturer can once and for all add its name to the prestigious victors list.

Once the tears and champagne dries up it will drive Toyota and company on to come back again and again. This was sport at its meanest but the magic of Le Mans burns brightly.

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