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.