Porsche win extraordinary 24 Hours at the death

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The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neel Jani has won the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans after one of the most aston­ish­ing race con­clu­sions ever seen at La Sarthe. With the race seem­ing­ly in the bag, the #5 Toy­ota Gazoo Rac­ing TS050 of Kazu­ki Naka­ji­ma crawled to a halt on the penul­ti­mate lap of the race after a com­plete loss of pow­er and failed to fin­ish with­in the required time.

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The #2 Porsche and the #5 and #6 Toy­otas had been engaged in a yo-yo bat­tle for the major­i­ty of Sunday’s run­ning, espe­cial­ly after lengthy delays to the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid with tech­ni­cal grem­lins as the race head­ed towards mid­night. The Japan­ese cars had been pur­su­ing a four­teen-lap stint strat­e­gy, com­pared to Porsche’s thir­teen-lap runs, which gave the #5 and #6 cars a key advan­tage as the race devel­oped.

As night turned to day, the only ques­tion mark remained whether the Toy­otas would be able to last the dis­tance and, if so, whether they could lap at a suf­fi­cient­ly fast pace to negate the Porsche’s speed advan­tage.

The #5 machine over­took the #6 car mid­way through the morn­ing and quick­ly estab­lished itself as the favourite for vic­to­ry in the hands of Antho­ny David­son, Sébas­t­ian Bue­mi and Kazu­ki Naka­ji­ma. Indeed, Porsche appeared resigned to defeat – erring on the side of cau­tion by pit­ting in the final half-hour instead of attempt­ing to close the 30-sec­ond gap to the lead car.

Then the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans reached its extra­or­di­nary denoue­ment. Com­ing out of the sec­ond chi­cane on the Mul­sanne Straight, dri­ver Kazu­ki Naka­ji­ma radioed the pits to say that he had lost all pow­er. In scenes rem­i­nis­cent of Jesús Pareja’s last lap dra­ma in 1990, the Toy­ota TS050 grad­u­al­ly ground to a halt over the final half of the penul­ti­mate lap before final­ly com­ing to a stand­still – with per­haps the ulti­mate cru­el­ty – in front of the 100,000 fans gath­ered on the start-fin­ish straight.

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With the entire pit lane vis­i­bly shocked, the #2 Porsche round­ed the final turn for its final lap and assumed the lead. All that Neel Jani had to do was com­plete the 8.5 miles to secure the most unlike­li­est of vic­to­ries for Porsche – the Ger­man marque’s 18th here at the famous race. Naka­ji­ma man­aged to com­plete the final lap on hybrid pow­er only and fin­ish sec­ond on the road. How­ev­er, his final lap time of over 11 min­utes was not with­in the required six min­utes and the car was offi­cial­ly unclas­si­fied.

The dra­ma at the front of the field some­what over­shad­owed the results in the oth­er class­es. LMP2 was won rel­a­tive­ly com­fort­ably by the #36 Sig­nat­e­ch Alpine A460 of Nico­las Lapierre, Gus­ta­vo Menezes and Stéphane Richel­mi by a lap from the #26 G-Dri­ve Rac­ing Ore­ca 05 of Roman Rusi­nov, René Rast and Will Stevens. The sec­ond pro­to­type class had also been a tac­ti­cal bat­tle, pri­mar­i­ly involv­ing the time the bronze-rat­ed gen­tle­men dri­vers spent in the car. Sig­nat­e­ch Alpine eeked out an advan­tage by ensur­ing that bronze dri­ver Gus­ta­vo Menezes drove as much of his required six hours of dri­ving as pos­si­ble in the ear­ly stages. For G-Dri­ve, Roman Rusi­nov was forced to dri­ve the final stints to make up his six hours of manda­to­ry dri­ving, with pro dri­ver René Rast unable to take over to make up the time.

In GTE Pro, the race-long bat­tle between the #68 Chip Ganas­si Rac­ing Ford GT of Sébas­t­ian Bour­dais, Joey Hand and Dirk Müller and the #82 Risi Com­pe­tizione Fer­rari 488 of Gian­car­lo Fisichel­la, Toni Vilan­der and Mat­teo Malu­cel­li con­tin­ued apace in the final six hours, with Joey Hand catch­ing and pass­ing Malu­cel­li with four hours of the race remain­ing.

After extend­ing his lead, Hand passed on to Dirk Müller, who estab­lished a com­fort­able lead over the Risi car. A spin for Toni Vilan­der in the Fer­rari dashed any hopes of vic­to­ry, but the dra­ma was yet to come. A fail­ure on the Risi Ferrari’s leader lights sys­tem saw the team issued with the black and orange flag, which means that the issue must be fixed in the pits. It was a deci­sion that ran con­trary to pro­ce­dure ear­li­er in the race, when a num­ber of teams were giv­en a great deal of time to fixed sim­i­lar issues.

Risi decid­ed not to pit, which would have cost them the podi­um, and end­ed up stand­ing on the sec­ond step togeth­er with the #68 and #69 Fords.

Images © Wal­ter Schruff and Ton Kerdijk