Toyota and Fernando Alonso Commandeer Second Consecutive Le Mans 24 Hour Victory
Despite the No. 7 Toyota LMP1 car being faster throughout, a major pit lane snafu handed the win to Alonso, Buemi, and Nakajima in the No. 8.
Storylines unfolded over the course of 24 hours during this weekend's endurance racing classic at Circuit de la Sarthe with the ultimate being Toyota claiming its second consecutive Le Mans victory. Led by the driver lineup of Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi, and Kazuki Nakajima, the No. 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid team beat out its sister No. 7 entry despite the latter leading the majority of the race from pole, a costly late-race error resulting in a dire forfeiture of first place as the checkered flag flew.
It was no secret going into the World Endurance Championship season's most significant race that the two Toyotas would be fighting each other for the win. Being the lone hybrid-powered entries in the top-tier LMP1 category, they held a major advantage over the privateer teams which made up the rest of the field. Unlike the manufacturer's historic 2018 victory, however, it looked as if the No. 7 Toyota had the upper hand in terms of both speed and strategy mid-race.
While No. 7 Toyota driver Mike Conway was piecing together blazing fast stints in the race's first-half, Fernando Alonso was expressing his frustration over team radio when he noticed the deficit in top-end speed between his car and the other Toyota Gazoo Racing machine. Le Mans' lengthy straights, of course, meant this was a massive disadvantage for Alonso and Co.
The TS050 Hybrids ran in this order, largely, until the final hours when the No. 7's race fell apart. A reported flat left-rear tire led to an unscheduled stop, but Jose Maria Lopez retained the lead upon exiting the pits—strangely, though, the Toyota's next run was cut to just two laps due to yet another flat in the same location. Instead of changing all four tires, pit wall called to replace the front-right only which proved fatal for the team's chance to take its first overall Le Mans victory.
A faulty tire pressure monitor misled the team to believe the puncture was on the car’s front-right when it was actually the right-rear. This resulted in a series of unnecessary repairs and stops while the No. 8 Toyota was running full-tilt on the track.
“This is not what the No. 7 has deserved. We thought there was a front right puncture; now there was one on the rear. We should have changed all the tires. We have a race now. This was not in our script. Sorry,” team manager Rob Leupen said.
Because of this, the lead switched in hour 24 and victory was handed to Alonso, Buemi, and Nakajima.
"The main goal this weekend was to win the championship, obviously the race was not playing to us—car No. 7 was quicker than us for 24 hours,” Alonso told MotorTrend TV after the race. “They really deserved the victory, but today the luck decided that we had the better trophy. Luck sometimes plays an important part in motorsport; today we feel extremely lucky and maybe we don’t deserve it, but we take it. The world championship feels great.”
The No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid team closed out the season with the championship in tow, joined on the podium by the No. 8 car. SMP Racing claimed the third and final rostrum spot in the No. 11 BR Engineering BR1.