2016 Le Mans 24 Hours 81

It was an end no one expected. Toyota, chasing its first ever Le Mans 24 Hours victory, was set to break the hoodoo at the Circuit de la Sarthe in style. The Japanese factory team led 277 laps of the race and throughout the night; and even after a trip into the gravel pit in the morning, was on track for first and third, sandwiching last year’s winner Porsche.

It was a cruise to the finish. Or so we thought, along with everyone else in the Audi Race Bar looking over the main straight. Ex-champ Allan McNish, who has raced for both Audi (in Le Mans) and Toyota (in F1), came on to congratulate the new champs and dissect the race, which didn’t go exactly to plan for the Ingolstadt squad. More on that later.

With one lap to go, shocking scenes flashed on the screens. The red-white #5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, driven by Kazuki Nakajima for the final stint, slowed down and inched to a complete stop right beneath us, and in front of the Audi pits.

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Even then, not everyone believed that disaster has struck. The commentating Scot raised the possibility of a cruise to the finish, a victory lap. Stephane Sarrazin in the other Toyota thought the same.

“When I saw Kazuki slow down, I thought he was waiting for me so that we could do the last lap together,” the French driver said. But as the pitwall behind #5 filled up and the seconds passed, it dawned upon the 263,500 fans and millions watching back home that the Toyota had given up the ghost. On the last lap.

Jaws dropped, fans looked at each other in disbelief, WTFs flew around and the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas flew past. Porsche crew handed out the “Finally 18!” victory t-shirts that would have remained in storage for another year. Cruelly, the message on the tees would have been applicable for Toyota as well – it was their 18th attempt trying to win the 24 Heures du Mans.

“What possibly could Toyota have done it its previous life?” exclaimed our in-house commentator, as shock gave way to sympathy for the manufacturer that had come close five times now (second place in 1992, 1994, 1999, 2013 and now 2016) and won the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) in 2014 without claiming the crown jewel. After silently emerging from the shadows this year (no one tipped them to win) to come so so close, you’ve got to feel for Toyota. The curse is real, and it continues.

UPDATE: Toyota has confirmed that car #5 suffered from a technical defect on a connector on the air line between the turbocharger and the intercooler, causing a loss of turbocharger control. The team then modified the control settings to restore power, and while this was eventually achieved, #5 took too long to complete the final lap and was not classified as a result. The team is investigating the cause of the problem.

Away from the two teams hoping for a lucky 18th, Audi was quietly confident of a strong showing from its R18. The new from the ground up LMP1 car features a new approach to drivetrain packaging, improved aerodynamics (higher and slimmer nose, more room between the wheelarches) and an all-new hybrid system that uses a lithium-ion batteries instead of the flywheel accumulator that has been employed since 2012.

Compared to the 2015 R18 e-tron quattro, the 2016 R18 gets a new six-speed gearbox and a more-efficient 4.0 litre V6 TDI engine that’s 10% more frugal with diesel than last year’s car. There’s also a fresh high-pressure central hydraulics system, along with optimised rear axle kinematics and cooling channels. The V6 makes 514 hp, and total system power is around 1,000 hp, which makes it Audi’s most powerful race car.

Audi was the first manufacturer to win Le Mans with diesel power back in 2006, and is sticking with TDI ten years on. Interestingly, each of the three manufacturers have their own preferred hybrid formula – Porsche uses a single turbo 2.0 litre four-cylinder petrol engine, while Toyota has a new 2.4 litre V6 biturbo petrol engine.

Technical battle aside, there’s plenty of pride at stake too. Audi was the king of Le Mans before Porsche’s return to the top tier of endurance racing, with an unbroken chain of victories from 2010 to 2014. With this year’s fortunate victory, the team from Weissach now has back-to-back wins at La Sarthe. The last time Audi was world champions was in 2013 – Toyota took the WEC title in 2014 and Porsche was all-conquering last season. Sibling rivalry is strong.

Toyota’s last lap meltdown opened the door for Audi to clinch the final podium slot, and a 3-4 finish to boost its position in the championship (Le Mans is a double-points race). It was Audi’s 18th (that number again!) successive podium finish. While the impressive run was maintained, it was mixed feelings in the garage.

“Unfortunately, neither of our two cars made it over the distance without issues. This weekend once more showed why Le Mans is regarded as the world’s toughest endurance race. I’m proud of our squad having managed to bring both cars home. But, obviously, this is not the result we were hoping for,” admitted Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Sport.

Loic Duval of the third-placed #8 Audi was more direct. “It was a very difficult race, a tough experience for us and, of course, for Toyota. The list of things that went wrong is too long to sum up here. We didn’t have the power or the pace.”

“There are plenty of things that didn’t work correctly, not least of all our performance. We lacked pace and we didn’t think this would be the case. We had too many technical problems, we were not on the level of our competition. We must quickly rectify this, because we don’t come here just to finish on the podium,” the Frenchman was later quoted as saying.

Stationed in the Audi Race Arena – an impressive two-storey hospitality building overlooking the Ford chicane final corner, and one of four Audi viewing areas – there were hints early on that this would not be their year.

At 3pm, the race started in low-key fashion behind the safety car, which led the pack for 52 minutes. Once racing started, the #7 Audi R18 piloted by Andre Lotterer inched his way from fifth to first, only to suffer from a turbo problem shortly after. The resulting pit stop put Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer out of contention for the victory.

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With #7 out of contention, it was down to Duval, Lucas di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis in sister car #8 to keep the flag flying. While lacking the speed of leaders Toyota and Porsche, it was a defective brake disc that doused the remaining fire in the final stages.

After 39 minutes in the pits to change the discs and front right suspension (#7 came in later for the disc change as well), even the longstanding podium record was finished, until the last lap twist. Lucas Di Grassi actually didn’t know he was on the podium until he stopped the #8 car and was walking back to the pits.

It was not meant to be for Audi at Le Mans 2016, but the silver lining is the 54 points collected from the double-points race, the third round of the 2016 WEC season. Porsche leads with 127 points, Audi is second with 95 points and Toyota has 79. The latter has proved that it has the speed, so there’s all to play for with six races to go in Germany (Nurburgring), USA, Mexico, Japan (Fuji Speedway), China and Bahrain to go. Prior to Le Mans, the teams raced in Silverstone and Spa. All are six-hour events.

But the one everyone wants to win is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Dr. Ullrich promised that his team will come back stronger next year.

GALLERY: Scenes from Driver’s Parade, the evening before the race

GALLERY: Scenes from Circuit de la Sarthe