Last lap losses and Nicolas Lapierre : Toyota’s mission to win Le Mans

With 90 minutes to go in the 1994 Le Mans 24 Hour Jeff Krosnoff suddenly realised that something was wrong with his Toyota. The race leader slowed coming down the front straight and pulled over near the pit exit. A gearbox linkage had gone. Krosnoff could get going again but he had a long slow lap to complete before reaching his mechanics and a lengthy pitstop for repairs meant that a certain victory was gone. The car had been leading for 9 hours and everything was seemingly under control so it was heartbreaking to lose the win with so little time remaining. Toyota had never won at Le Mans so their first victory would’ve been a very special achievement.

It was a hugely frustrating result for Toyota who were looking good to deliver on the promise they had shown 12 months earlier. In the 1993 race Toyota had assumed the early lead and also set the outright lap record but ultimately their cars were incapable of challenging the more dominant Peugeots. Lessons were learnt and in 1994 the Toyota 94C-V was a much stronger package. It just wasn’t strong enough to close out the win.

That’s the nature of sport but it’s a story that has become all too familiar for Toyota as history keeps repeating itself. The largest carmaker in the world has spent 25 years trying to reach the pinnacle of sportscar racing but hasn’t yet been successful despite several close calls.

Toyota was the team to beat at Le Mans in 1999. They had a line-up of superstar drivers, a healthy budget, and a year’s worth of experience with the mighty GT-One. All three cars entered by the team that year had a shot at winning. All three suffered punctures that robbed them of that opportunity. A Le Mans victory slipped through their fingers.

The story was similar in 2014. Toyota was again class of the field and all of the ingredients were in place for success. However, one of their leading contenders went into the wall during a downpour and the other retired from the lead when a wiring loom melted. Another likely victory was gone.

Then of course there was the astonishing last lap defeat in 2016. In a scenario that would be too unbelievable for a Hollywood script Toyota was well in control of the 24 hour race until the final three minutes. Right when the team looked set to avenge years of painful losses they suffered the most painful loss of them all. It was a cathartic moment.

Things could only get better and 2017 looked like it would finally be different.

Toyota were overwhelming favourites when they arrived at Le Mans this year. They had taken command of the 2017 World Endurance Championship with a fast car and their opposition was notably weaker. Audi had withdrawn from the sport and the only other rival (Porsche) was miles off the pace. Importantly, the Japanese team entered an expanded three car squad which gave them additional safety in numbers. Toyota looked unbeatable.

In most cases a one sided race would be quite boring but a dominant Toyota victory would create a feel-good story for the sport. Toyota is always the bridesmaid but never the bride so their eventual breakthrough would be a popular result.

Adding to the good story was return of Nicolas Lapierre. The Frenchman was sacked by Toyota midway through 2014 and the situation was handled very poorly. Toyota initially lied about his departure saying that Lapierre was missing one race due to “personal circumstances”, but when he never showed up again the team had to admit Lapierre had been dropped permanently. Some thought that was very harsh decision given he was co-leading the World Championship at the time and maybe that’s why Toyota danced around the issue. Lapierre had been involved in a few incidents and, although there had been other contributing factors, he was seen as an ongoing risk and promptly removed. It suggests Toyota at least partly blamed Lapierre for their 2014 Le Mans defeat which isn’t something anyone wants hanging over their head.

Toyota’s cut throat decision cost Lapierre the World Championship that was subsequently awarded to the other two drivers sharing his car. That must’ve been incredibly hard to swallow.

Fast forward to 2017 and Nicolas Lapierre was back in the team with no hard feelings. Toyota was giving him another chance and Lapierre could right the wrongs of the past. His sacking was one of the few controversies that surrounded Toyota’s WEC program but now it was all over. The Frenchman was back for the great French race and Toyota had created the opportunity for a fairytale result.

The stage was set.

Early in the race everything was looking good. Toyotas were running first and second with a reasonable margin back to Porsche. The cars had pace in hand and they were expected to be even stronger in the cooler conditions overnight.

It was during the eighth hour that things started to go wrong. Sebastien Buemi came over the radio reporting some sort of drivetrain issue and although the team assured him the data was fine Buemi was not imagining things. An issue with the front axle materialised and although Sebastien reached the pits he was stuck there for 2 hours. Any hope of victory was gone.

Then Kamui Kobayashi had a problem. His car was unable to accelerate back to full speed after a safety car period because the clutch had gone. Kobayashi tried to get the car back to his mechanics but he was unsuccessful. Both of the race favourites were out.

All of Toyota’s hopes then fell to their third car. The driver was Nicholas Lapierre. His big moment had arrived.

Within 15 minutes of assuming the extra responsibility Lapierre collided with an LMP2 driver and was flung off the track before the Dunlop chicane. Lapierre and Toyota were quick to blame Simon Trummer in the LMP2 car for taking them out but the accident wasn’t that simple. Lapierre was passing Trummer to his left as another car exited the pitlane on his right. Trummer says he was surprised by Lapierre’s driving because he gave him plenty of room, and Toyota general manager Hisatake Murata later admitted Lapierre was “pushing in a place he didn’t need to push”. The Frenchman was seemingly driving with an aggressive mindset. Earlier in the race the he overtook a pack of 4 GT cars at once down the Mulsanne straight by jinking off the circuit and bouncing over the trackside verge. It was a wild manoeuvre that was completely unnecessary in an endurance race – especially from a driver trying to restore his reputation. Perhaps if Lapierre had adopted a more circumspect attitude he wouldn’t have been in a position to make contact with other cars.

The man Toyota once thought was an untenable risk had again driven himself into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The result of the collision was a puncture. Lapierre started heading back to pits but had a whole lap before reaching safety of his mechanics. He drove back as quickly as possible but that wasn’t a prudent approach. As Nicholas pushed his Toyota hard the punctured tyre started to fully delaminate and that triggered far more damage. Large chunks of rubber flew around so violently they literally tore the car’s rear end apart. A trail of thick smoke poured out the back and the plume was visible even in the dark of night. At Arnage the rear properly caught fire and the Toyota was forced to stop. At the time when he should have been nursing the car home Lapierre was seemingly thrashing it to death. It was unthinkable. If Lapierre really was the innocent victim in the clash with Trummer, he took more control of his own destiny heading back to the pits. Perhaps his engineers need to shoulder some responsibility for not providing more coaching to Nicolas on the way home.

Lapierre was able to get the car moving again after the fire at Arnage but not for long. The Toyota eventually ground to a halt just 500m from the pits. The gearbox had been destroyed and so had Toyota’s hopes of Le Mans glory. Again.

Lapierre cut a lonely figure walking back to the pits in the dark.

Toyota’s mission to win Le Mans has given the team a huge sense of purpose and assuming they eventually do succeed all of those failures and close calls will make the victory so much sweeter. It’s a great ongoing motorsport story. If Toyota had won a few times back in the 90s there would be nowhere near as much passion or excitement around their current program. Peugeot’s largely forgettable success earlier this decade is testament to that. The eventual culmination of Toyota’s 25 year mission will be a big news story for Le Mans and will keep some interest in the LMP1 category that is currently struggling for relevance.

Toyota has committed to returning next year and depending how the cards fall over the next 12 months they could enter 2018 with an even stronger Le Mans package. In any case, the Japanese giant won’t be comfortable until their drivers are standing on the top step of the Le Mans podium.

Nicolas Lapierre will not be one of them.

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IndyCar: Visor cam is awesome

One of the cool things to come out of IndyCar recently is the improved version of “visor cam” that features on the live broadcast. Plenty of similar helmet cameras have been used in the past but none have offered this view or level of clarity. Other categories would be mad if they didn’t try to introduce the same thing.

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Toyota has narrowly lost at Le Mans for the fifth time

Toyota came close to winning the Le Mans 24 hour in 1994, 1999, 2014, and again last year when they led until the very last lap, but the biggest prize in sportscar racing keeps eluding the Japanese company. 2017 was meant to be different. A fast 3-car team against weak opposition gave Toyota a perfect opportunity to finally grab Le Mans victory and only a disaster could stop them. The nature of sport is such that a disaster is exactly what happened. All 3 cars hit trouble before half distance and the monkey that has been on Toyota’s back for the last 15 years still won’t let go.

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A new record was set during the Italian Moto3 Grand Prix

In Sunday’s Moto3 race at Mugello the rider who finished 20th reached the chequered flag just 3.05 seconds behind the winner. That makes it the closest top 20 finish in any Grand Prix motorcycle race in history.

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Vale Nicky Hayden

Sad news emerged from Italy where Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries sustained in a cycling accident. The 2006 MotoGP World Champion was one of the sport’s most popular riders thanks to his relaxed and friendly demeanour. He will be remembered for his warmth of character as much as he will for his on track success. Hayden is survived by his parents, two brothers, two sisters, and his fiancee. He was just 35.

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An oil spill wreaked havoc in the French Moto3 Grand Prix

Half the Moto3 field ended up sliding out at the same corner in a crazy incident on lap one at Le Mans. Plenty of riders made contact with other bikes in the gravel trap so it was lucky that nobody was seriously injured.

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MotoGP: Dani Pedrosa’s career statistics are amazing

In Jerez, Dani Pedrosa became the first rider in history to win at least one Grand Prix in 16 consecutive seasons. That is a phenomenal achievement over many years and he has managed that against some very strong competition. It’s a timely reminder that Pedrosa’s career statistics are right up there with the very best – he has won more Grands Prix than 104 other World Champions!

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Three interesting stories from the Mexico City ePrix

Lucas Di Grassi went from last to first
Lucas di Grassi took an amazing victory in Mexico thanks to an unusual strategy and some brilliant tactical driving. Di Grassi dropped to last place after sustaining damage on lap 1 so his team took a risk that required Lucas to use roughly 20% less electrical energy than his rivals. They took a ‘free’ pitstop when the safety car bunched the field before half distance, and although this gifted Di Grassi the lead when everyone else stopped later in the race, it meant he had to make his battery last 28 laps (when it was only expected to last 23-24 laps). It was a seemingly impossible task, but he saved plenty under yellow flags, changed his racing lines and coasted off the throttle wherever possible. It was a masterful performance of economical driving whilst the field nipped at his heels.

Di Grassi was lucky that Jerome d’Ambrosio was acting as a buffer in 2nd place holding up cars behind him. That was a huge assistance but it also helped illustrate how brilliant Di Grassi’s drive was. D’Ambrosio was on the same strategy and was lapping around the same pace, but started falling down the order with three laps to go and ran out of juice completely on the last lap. Lucas di Grassi had enough battery life remaining for burnouts on his way to the podium.

Abt Audi Sport failed scrutineering yet again
Daniel Abt had pole position stripped from him in Mexico after his car was found with tyre pressures too low for the regulations. It was likely an innocent mistake, but it is the third time the Abt Audi Sport team has been penalised for failing scrutineering. Lucas di Grassi lost a win in season 1 when his team illegally modified the front wing and he lost another win in Season 2 when the car was underweight. Those disqualifications cost the team two championships so you would expect they’d now be extra vigilant about complying with the regulations, but surprisingly that wasn’t the case.

Sebastien Buemi made another costly mistake.
Sebastien Buemi has dominated the current Formula E season but had a difficult weekend in Mexico with a scrappy qualifying session and a costly spin during the race. It threw some light on the suggestion that, whilst Buemi is very quick, he makes a lot of mistakes. Depending how you count them (and how harsh you want to be in judgement) Sebastien Buemi has made 15 mistakes in 25 races which is a very high number for the category’s most successful driver. Some of those errors have had no consequence – he ran off the road twice during the first Punta del Este ePrix which he still won – whilst some of those arguably cost him the first championship.

Buemi’s Formula E stats are way ahead of any other driver, but the number of mistakes against his name remains an ongoing weakness.

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A massive rivalry is growing between Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies

Jonathan Rea is dominating the 2017 World Superbike Championship but his results don’t tell the full story. There have been 8 races this year and in 5 of them Rea has fought wheel-to-wheel against Chaz Davies in the final laps. The entertaining rivalry between the two riders is starting to get nasty and tensions boiled over at Assen last weekend.

As per the summary below, the large 84 point gap between Rea and Davies in the championship doesn’t reflect how close their battle has really been. The winning margin in the first two races of 2017 was just a few hundredths of a second!

  • Race 1 : Rea wins. Davies 2nd place by just 0.04 seconds.
  • Race 2 : Rea wins. Davies 2nd place by just 0.02 seconds.
  • Race 3 : Rea wins. Davies 2nd place by 6 seconds.
  • Race 4 : Rea wins. Davies crashes whilst fighting for the lead.
  • Race 5 : Rea wins. Davies crashes from the lead near the finish.
  • Race 6 : Davies wins. Rea 2nd place by just 0.4 seconds.
  • Race 7 : Rea wins. Davies breaks down whilst fighting for the lead at the finish.
  • Race 8 : Rea wins. Davies 3rd place.

Davies has only taken one victory but has been in contention for six. He sits third in the championship right now but will seemingly be Rea’s closest challenger for the 2017 title. Chaz will be well aware that it’s gradually slipping out of reach.

An incident during qualifying at Assen has added plenty of heat into the rivalry. Davies was held up by Rea on his hot lap and proceeded to physically remonstrate on the track. That was very surprising. The two continued the argument in parc-ferme afterwards and both moments are captured in the videos below.

In a 1400 word statement published after the weekend (and not in the heat of the moment) Davies made his feelings very clear. He suggested that Rea had been waiting for the opportunity to baulk him and “took it way too far”. Davies, who never referred to Rea by name, said “#65 was looking over his shoulder with intent from early in his in lap … it was clear for all of us to see. #65 knew I was coming and endangered both of us with his underhand games. Of course he will deny this, but the facts, video and Race Direction penalty prove otherwise.”

For his part, Rea said the incident was completely unintentional and Davies had no business “punching” him on track. Rea also explained that he was trying to diffuse the situation afterwards. He could probably try harder next time by being less defensive, but he did offer a hand of apology. In his personal column for Motorcycle News, Rea said “I prefer to keep my opinions about Chaz to myself” so there is clearly bad blood on both sides.

The top two riders in the championship are consistently fighting each other in last-lap thrillers and now there is plenty of personal aggro between them as well. It’s compelling to watch.

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Elfyn Evans missed his first WRC win by just 0.7 seconds

After 3 days and 350km of dusty gravel roads, Thierry Neuville beat Elfyn Evans in Rally Argentina by just 7 tenths of a second! That’s the 3rd closest finish in WRC history. It was especially heartbreaking for Evans (who has never won before) since he led most of the event but spent almost 2 days watching his comfortable lead disappear with engine and brake problems. He still could’ve held on if it wasn’t for a tiny mistake on the final stage. Those 7 tenths will haunt him.

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