Toyota dominated the 88th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, with Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley giving the #8 car its third straight victory.
Held in September for the first time since civil unrest broke out across France in 1968, Le Mans 2020 took place behind closed doors due to COVID-19 induced safety measures.
Having topped the new-look hyperpole qualifying session on Friday, the #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi converted that pace into the early lead, despite the close attentions of the second-placed starting #1 Rebellion R-13 of Bruno Senna at Dunlop.
Senna quickly had to turn his focus to defending against the #8 Toyota of Buemi during the opening tour; the pair went side-by-side on the fast run towards Indianapolis with the Rebellion remaining in front until the first round of stops.
The LMP1 stint length worked out to be 11 laps, and Senna and Buemi pitted together the first around.
In a strategic twist pre-race, Toyota overfilled both of its cars, meaning that Buemi was stationary for less time at the stops and therefore leapfrogged the lighter Rebellion on exit.
But things turned bad for Buemi soon after; a puncture near the end of the first hour forced the #8 to limp back to the pits, dropping it into third, just four seconds ahead of the #3 Rebellion of Nathanael Berthon – shared with Romain Dumas and Louis Deletraz.
The #8 didn’t take long to work its way back into second though but its victory charge seemingly unravelled when it encountered overheating brakes, which ultimately necessitated a full front-right change in the seventh hour.
With Lopez at the wheel, Toyota elected to execute the change during the second safety car period, caused by a high-speed accident for the ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 of Bruno Spengler at La Chapelle.
A rear wing failure pitched the ByKolles machine into the barriers, causing extensive damage to the front and rear of the car.
The safety car intervention – which came after the first period following Alexander West crashing his GTE Am Ferrari at the Porsche Curves – was extended when Tristan Gommendy (Duqueine Team #30) damaged the barriers on the approach to the first Hunaudieres chicane.
The threat of overnight rain failed to materialise, but the drama did not stop approaching the halfway point of the race, as the leading #7 suffered a broken turbo that left Kobayashi stranded in the garage for half an hour.
This gave the #8, which had been a lap behind following its own mechanical trouble, the lead of the race while the #7 dropped six laps and behind both Rebellions.
With the sister Toyota relegated to fourth for the remaining 11 hours, the #8 was largely untroubled on its way to another Le Mans win.
Its five-lap lead over the #1 Rebellion – which had to fend off an unexpected challenge from the #3 after suspension problems resulted in an extended pit stay in the morning – was more than enough.
Kobayashi’s woes were not only limited to missing out on yet another Le Mans 24 Hours victory, they also heavily impacted the #7’s World Endurance Championship title chances, his crew having come into the weekend just eight points clear of the race-winning #8 crew.
Rebellion is not expected to take part in the final round of the season in Bahrain, claiming that unless it was in contention for the crown, it would skip the trip to the Middle East.
With fewer points on offer for an LMP1 grid of three at best, the #7’s hopes appear to be slim, if not completely extinguished.
Behind the dominant #8, Rebellion had both its cars on the podium, with the #1 of Senna, Norman Nato and Gustavo Menezes – who pushed the Toyotas hard in qualifying – recovering from its stay in the garage to come home second, five laps behind.
The #3 of Deletraz, Dumas and Berthon had inherited second with the #1 in the pits, but clutch issues in the closing hours resulted in slow stops, and a trip through the Indianapolis gravel from Deletraz with an hour to go made sure third was the best it could muster.
LMP2 – United Autosports survives late fuel stop to win
Paul di Resta, Filipe Albuquerque and Phil Hanson came out on top in LMP2 in the #22 United Autosports ORECA, despite having to make a late stop for fuel with just eight minutes remaining.
The JOTA #38 of Anthony Davidson, Antonio Felix da Costa and Roberto Gonzalez was the closest challenger in the dying stages and looked to have had a chance at reeling in Hanson, but Davidson also pitted for a splash and dash on the penultimate lap.
Di Resta started the #22 from pole and led the early stages during an opening hour which curtailed the hopes of two major victory contenders as unreliability struck at an alarming rate.
The first to fall victim to the Le Mans jinx was the #36 Signatech Alpine entry of Andre Negrao, Pierre Ragues and Thomas Laurent, which was forced to pit at the end of the opening lap with a “major water pressure issue”.
Things didn’t get much better for the French outfit, as Negrao was pinged with a drivethrough penalty for crossing the line at pit exit.
Such was the nature of the race though, that despite a spin at the exit of the Porsche Curves for Laurent during the night, the #36 showed impressive pace and worked its way well into the top 10 by sunrise, eventually finishing fifth.
There was also trouble for the #29 Racing Team Nederland ORECA of Giedo van der Garde, who suffered with water pressure problems too. The car slowed between Mulsanne Corner and Indianapolis and pitted no fewer than three times inside the opening hour.
Until the halfway point of the race, there had been a number of cars capable of winning LMP2, but for various reasons fell by the wayside.
The Graff-run SO24-Has ORECA was one of them. James Allen built a healthy 30-second advantage during a sensational stint but team-mate Vincent Capillaire then spun exiting Karting at the end of the Porsche Curves, which pushed their #39 down the order.
It remained in the top five until the very last hour, before Allen crashed at the exit of the Porsche Curves with 36 minutes remaining, bringing out the final safety car.
There was more drama for the Jackie Chan DC Racing car of Ho Pin Tung, Gabriel Aubry and Will Stevens.
Tung assumed the lead after Capillaire’s spin before handing over to Aubry who held a lead of over a minute from the G-Drive entry of Jean-Eric Vergne.
Aubry then suffered an electrical-induced misfire in his car which relegated it to the pits and cost his entry three laps.
It was subsequently disqualified from the race after the stewards found that physical outside assistance had been used to restart the car following several stoppages on track.
The fight was then taken up by the pair of United Autosports ORECAs of di Resta and Alex Brundle who did battle for top honours during the night.
The #32 of Brundle, Job van Uitert and Will Owen eventually slipped down the order with suspension issues, while there was more drama in the closing hour and a half as Vergne’s G-Drive Aurus also suffered suspension problems, dropping it out of third and promoting the Panis Racing ORECA of Matthieu Vaxiviere, Julien Canal and Nicolas Jamin to the podium.
The all-female Richard Mille Racing #50 entry of Tatiana Calderon, Sophia Floersch and Beitske Visser impressively finished ninth in class.
GTE Pro – Aston beats Ferrari in 24 Hour sprint
As has become almost common knowledge in recent years, the battle for GTE Pro honours was as close to a 24-hour sprint race as you could expect, with the Aston Martin Racing #97 of Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin and Harry Tincknell fending off a stern assault from AF Corse’s #51 Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra.
Joining the two protagonists in an epic four-car lead battle were the sister Aston and Ferrari, the former crew being the WEC points leaders in the #95 Vantage.
The #95 ‘Dane Train’ of Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Richard Westbrook fell out of the hunt after being caught in the pitlane during a safety car period. It lost a lap after rejoining the queue but failed to figure thereafter.
The same fate afflicted the #71 Ferrari which had taken a turn at the head of the field approaching nightfall before mechanical issues with the front suspension struck.
Instead, the fight for victory was disputed by the #97 and #51, which exchanged the lead at almost each pit cycle.
The pair engaged in slipstreaming affairs down the Hunaudieres Straight, with Tincknell and Pier Guidi electing to use the second chicane as their go-to overtaking place.
Tincknell, Martin and Lynn then opened up a 16-second advantage over the Ferrari, which they extended to over a minute by the end when their rival required a brake change.
Thanks to the #71’s woes in the pits, Thiim, Westbrook and Sorensen did make it onto the podium in third, making it a damage limitation project ahead of the season finale in Bahrain.
That project was made slightly more bearable by a nightmare race for Porsche. Polesitter Gianmaria Bruni lost the lead to Calado’s Ferrari at the second chicane on the opening lap and tumbled down the order to last inside the opening half an hour.
It was no better for the #92 Porsche of Michael Christensen, who was forced off pit sequence after picking up a puncture early on.
A power steering failure on the #92 – which was second to the #95 Aston in the points – ensured team-mates Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor could only manage seventh.
GTE Am – TF Sport Aston on top
The Aston Martin was generally the car to beat in the Am class, and with TF Sport’s Charlie Eastwood, Salih Yoluc and Jonathan Adam it delivered a near-flawless performance to secure victory by a lap from the Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche of Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Riccardo Pera.
Much like the GTE Pro battle, it was a fraught affair at the front, with the factory-backed Aston Martin Racing Vantage of Augusto Farfus, Ross Gunn and Paul Dalla Lana.
Gunn was immense in his stints and the 2017 British GT4 champion certainly showcased his talents at the wheel alongside Farfus.
The two Astons were nose-to-tail for large portions of the race before suspension issues forced the AMR Vantage down the order.
Campbell brought the Dempsey-Proton Porsche home second, just over four seconds clear of the AF Corse Ferrari of Nicklas Nielsen, Francois Perrodo and Emmanuel Collard who completed the podium.