A race where the winner has no direct competition ordinarily wouldn’t be the most exciting prospect, but Toyota’s win at the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans was a tearjerker. Only the second Japanese automaker to win Le Mans (after Mazda in 1991), Toyota was the only entrant in the top LMP1 class in 2018. But its victory this year makes up for a heartbreaking loss in 2016.
Two years ago, Toyota came excruciatingly close to winning the legendary 24-hour race, only for its lead car to break down with minutes to spare. The loss was so shocking that winner Porsche took out magazine ads thanking Toyota for a great fight. Toyota has entered Le Mans off and on since 1992, but hasn’t been able to do better than second place until this year.
But if Toyota could keep its cars running for 24 hours, a victory was more or less assured this time around. Rivals Porsche and Audi no longer race in the top LMP1 class, leaving Toyota’s TS050 Hybrid race cars without direct competition. While a car from the lower LMP2 came close to winning last year after the faster LMP1s developed mechanical problems, 2018 was Toyota’s golden opportunity to make up for 2016.
With no direct outside competition, the two Toyota hybrids raced each other. Victory went to the number 8 car of Sbastian Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, and two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso (due to the length of the race, drivers take the wheel in shifts). Still racing on the F1 circuit with McLaren, Alonso moonlighted at Le Mans as part of his quest to win racing’s “Triple Crown” — the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500, and Le Mans. Having already won at Monaco, the Le Mans victory leaves Alonso one race away from his goal.
Alonso’s extracurricular activities have been a public relations masterstroke. Uncompetitive cars have left the Spaniard winless in F1 for several years, but Alonso attracts a crowd whenever he races outside of the series. He received an outsize share of attention at Le Mans, just as he did at the 2017 Indy 500 (where he failed to finish due to engine trouble) and the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
While it was likely that one of the Toyotas would win, it wasn’t clear which one it would be. The number 7 car of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and Jos Mara Lpez led for much of the race. Two penalties slowed down the number 8 car. But Alonso closed the gap during a nighttime stint, and the number 7 car later encountered fuel issues, putting it in second place.
The number 3 Rebellion Racing R-13 of Gustavo Menezes, Thomas Laurent, and Mathias Beche finished third overall, and first among the LMP2 cars. Le Mans also features two classes for race cars based on production models, and Porsche won both of them this year. The factory-fielded number 92 911 RSR, driven by Kevin Estre, Laurens Vanthoor, and Michael Christensen, took the GTE-Pro class crown. The number 77 911, fielded by private team Dempsey-Proton Racing, won in GTE-Am, driven by Matt Campbell, Christian Ried, and Julien Andlauer.