Toyota wins Le Mans 24 Hours for fourth time

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Japanese squad dominates by locking out top two steps of podium, while LMP2 battle goes right to the wire.

Toyota claimed its fourth consecutive win at the Le Mans 24 Hours as British ace Mike Conway and his team-mates Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez finally ended their personal hoo-doo at the great race by steering the #7 GR010 Hybrid to victory.

The race marked the beginning of the new Hypercar (LMH) era at Le Mans, with Toyota picking up from where it left off in LMP1 to score a dominant one-two. Critics will point once again to the lack of opposition faced by the cars run out of Cologne by Gazoo Racing. But the manner of the success remained impressive as only punctures and a fuel pick-up glitch that struck both classes threatened to derail the campaign, with two cars that until last weekend were unproven over this distance in a competitive context.

“It was a hard race,” Conway insisted. “We knew we had an issue on the car for the last six hours and that could have been a really big problem, but the team came up with a solution to keep us going. All credit to them for getting a one-two finish. It is really special in the circumstances.

“This race is never easy. Even if you are out on your own at the front, anything can happen. We can enjoy it now because a weight is lifted off us.”

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Buemi hit by Glickenhaus at the first corner

The pair of eponymous Pipo-engined 007s fielded by American eccentric Jim Glickenhaus were the only other new LMH cars Toyota faced, but a test-topping performance the previous week underlined how this project should not be underestimated, especially as both cars got to the finish. Still, the race didn’t start well for Glickenhaus, after Olivier Pla in the #708 entry collided at the first corner with the #8 Toyota driven by Sebastien Buemi, straight from the start. The incident derailed the #8 challenge and although Buemi quickly recovered following a systems reset, he and his team-mates never gained the upper hand over the sister #7 for the rest of the race. In that sense, the first-corner collision was a decisive moment in the final result.

Frantic finish in LMP2 almost ends in disaster

Our predictions that an LMP2 runner could finish on the podium and even win overall proved wide of the mark as the five LMH entries all made it to the finish with remarkable and frankly surprising reliability. But while the Toyotas were never seriously challenged by the third-placed Alpine A480 – a ‘grandfathered’ LMP1 car running with heavy restrictions – the fight for LMP2 honours did live up to expectations, ending in a climax that won’t quickly be forgotten.

The WRT team, best known for its GT3 exploits, made a stunning debut at Le Mans with both its cars leading the way for most of the race. But on the very last lap, Yifei Ye in the #41 stopped out on the circuit and couldn’t restart, cruelly robbing a crew that included Robert Kubica from a deserved class victory. Still, Robin Frijns in the sister #31 car stepped up – but the Formula E racer had to sprint to the line, pursued by Tom Blomqvist (son of rally hero Stig) in the #28 Jota entry. As Toyota led the field on its traditional ceremonial final lap, the two LMP2 leaders darted at full speed through the traffic – and Frijns came close to wiping out the chequered flag bearer who was standing out on the track to welcome them home. A horror story was only narrowly averted.

Floersch escapes another big accident

Some big shunts marred the LMP2 race during the 24 Hours, including a heavy collision between two of the United Autosports entries that ruined hopes of a repeat victory for the dominant team of 2020. Then there was poor Sophia Floersch, who was tagged into a shunt at the Porsche Curves by a rival under the cover of darkness, before her Richard Mille Racing entry was T-boned by another car. The in-car camera looking back at her face captured her moment of terror that understandably left her shaken. Having survived a horror Formula 3 shunt at Macau in the past, she can once again count her lucky stars.

Double GTE joy for AF Corse’s Ferrari

Ferrari claimed the GTE class double this year as AF Corse took victory in both the Pro and Am categories. In the former, British ace James Calado was among the winning crew to score his second GTE class win at Le Mans. The 32-year-old will surely be in line to win a place in Ferrari’s line-up when the Prancing Horse returns to the top class in 2023.

Overall, the 2021 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours won’t be remembered as a classic. But historically it will stand out, as the beginning of a new era that promises far greater entries gunning for the overall win throughout the decade to come. This year was only the start.

Damien Smith

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