Toyota ushered in a new era of sportscar racing as they ended the last, with another dominant win at the Le Mans 24 Hours. For the drivers, Britain’s Mike Conway, Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi and Argentina’s José Maria López it was the redemptive victory that has thus far cruelly eluded them and for that will doubtless taste all the sweeter as all three claimed their first win at the grand vingt-quatre.
The 89th running of the 24 was the debut for the new Le Mans Hypercar class and Toyota had the whip hand of the 61-car grid at the Circuit de la Sarthe, albeit in what was a small, five-car field in the top class. Having won the last three races at Le Mans, the Japanese manufacturer secured their fourth victory with some ease, the first win in what promises to become a hugely competitive class of sportscar racing.
The crew of the No 7 GR010 hybrid, Conway, Kobayashi and López had started from pole and largely led across the race. The squad have been racing together for Toyota since 2018 and were dominant in both 2019 and 2020 only to be denied by a puncture and a turbo problem, respectively. To close out the victory they had long craved was hugely emotional for all three drivers who must count this as a highlight of their careers.
They finished the race having completed 371 laps of the 8.47 miles of the Circuit de la Sarthe and were two laps up on the second-placed car, the sister Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley in the No 8 car. The Alpine of Nicolas Lapierre, André Negrão and Matthieu Vaxivière finished third. The privateer Glickenhaus team, run by the former film writer and director Jim Glickenhaus, made an impressive Le Mans debut, bringing home both their cars in fourth and fifth.
For Britain’s Conway, who is from Bromley in south London and competed in Indycar before switching to sportscars in 2013, it was the culmination of a long, concerted tilt at taking the Le Mans crown. The 38-year-old made the top step at his eighth attempt having been second here three times and third once.
“We’ve come so close so many times and to get it done here with the new Hypercar as well [is special],” he said. “I was crying like a little girl. We worked so hard for this one and you forget how hard it is.” López described the victory as “a dream come true”.
Kobayashi competed in F1 between 2009 and 2014 with limited success but was ecstatic and relieved at the win having been a stalwart at Toyota in sportscars since 2016.
“It’s amazing to survive, we tried to maximise the car to be safe,” he said. “To be here is an amazing feeling in the end, my teammates did a great job through the week. Finally, we are the 24 Hours of Le Mans winners.”
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The No 7 led from pole on a wet track that saw the opening two laps under the safety car and were able to capitalise on an advantage almost immediately. On the first racing lap the No 8 was clipped and spun out by the Glickenhaus of Olivier Pla. Buemi was forced to stop and reset the car and dropped a minute and a half to the sister car.
They fought back to come close to parity, however, and while on differing pitstop strategies the two cars exchanged the lead. But in the early hours of the morning Kobayashi was able to put in a strong stint to reinforce their minute and a half advantage. It was a lead that only increased over the final third as the No 8 suffered a fuel problem, forcing them to take shorter stints between stops. With the gap solid and unthreatened at the front and managing a similar potential fuel issue for the final stints, Kobayashi was nerveless to close it out to the flag.
There were 50,000 fans in attendance at La Sarthe to welcome the new era after the event was held behind closed doors last year, which returned something of the unique atmosphere of this singular motor race. Toyota deserved the win. They performed with their accustomed skill and professionalism but must expect a far greater challenge in future.
Of the five cars in the LMH class, Glickenhaus were new to Le Mans and Alpine were using a car adapted from the previous LMP1 regulations. Peugeot are set to join the Hypercar class next year, though, and Ferrari in 2023. They will also be joined by Audi, Porsche and BMW in 2023 in the new global Le Mans Daytona H class. Toyota have opened strongly, then, but it is only the opening chapter of what should be an engrossing story.
A fiercely competitive LMP2 class was won by the WRT of Robin Frijns, Charles Milesi and Ferdinand Habsburg. In LMGTE-Pro, Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Côme Ledogar took victory in a Ferrari for AF Corse with the team also winning with Nicklas Nielsen, Alessio Rovera and François Perrodo in LMGTE-Am.