Motorsports can be cruel. Toyota was reminded of this when it lost the 24 Hours of Le Mans to Porsche during the final lap of the world’s most famous endurance race. I was with Toyota’s executive team members when their near elation was transformed into complete deflation last weekend.
After 23 hours and 53 minutes of racing, Toyota had built a lead of about 80 seconds on the closest Porsche in Le Mans’ fastest category, the custom-built LMP1 class. But in the penultimate lap Porsche turned what looked like an an insurmountable lead into a sprint to the finish. The trouble for Toyota is that its racecar had nothing left to give. When it stopped on the final straightaway with just the final lap to go, Porsche was able to pass, earning its 18th Le Mans title.
What went wrong? Toyota says it has not identified the problem, yet, but the buzz around Le Mans was that the car’s hybrid system failed. A failure of the hybrid would have robbed the car of more than 500 hp, which could explain why an 80-second lead turned into a heartbreaking defeat.
Two days after the race, a Toyota Motorsport spokesman said the sudden loss of power was still under investigation. He said Toyota is trying to determine the cause for an issue “that we have never experienced previously.”
Let’s just say that it would add insult to injury if Toyota is forced to admit its crushing defeat was caused by the failure of its hybrid.
The traumatic ending for Toyota would have been made even more painful were it not for the graciousness that Porsche showed after the race.
“First of all I would like to express my respect for the sensational performance which Toyota gave in this race,” Fritz Enzinger, Porsche’s vice president of LMP1 racing, said in a statement released at the end of the race, that was Porsche’s 18th victory in the Le Mans
Also referring to Toyota Porsche’s LMP1 team principal, Andreas Seidl, said, “to give away such a great race this way on the last lap is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.”
While Porsche’s kind words could not take away Toyota’s astronomical disappointment, they showed a level of sportsmanship and class that is becoming rare in the hyper-competitive automotive business.
We learned last weekend that this includes Le Mans. I say this because Ford and Ferrari spent so much time last weekend issuing protests against one another in an effort to win the production-car derived GT Pro class of the race.
In the end, the stewards punished both automakers. All the bickering didn’t change the final result.
Ford took first, third and fourth in the GT Pro class. Ferrari was second.
But it's too bad that both automakers failed to show the same level of sportsmanship and class that arch rivals Porsche and Toyota demonstrated on the same day and under much more dramatic circumstances.