Once again Toyota retired from the 24 Hours of Le Mans while holding a strong lead – just like 2014. This time, the clutch failed on the #7 TS050 of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Stéphane Sarrazin while it was leading after 10 hours of the race. However, a curious incident – barely believable had it not been caught on TV – may have led to the failure on the part and ultimate retirement.
When Kamui Kobayashi pitted during the first safety car phase of the race, the race was just about to go green again and the safety car came in our Kobayashi’s out lap. However, when the Japanese driver floored the throttle coming over the start/finish straight, he got nothing – or at least very little – in return. The car appeared to be stuck in gear. Kobayashi attempted to complete the lap and return to the pits on electric power, but he eventually crawled to a halt at the Porsche Curves, arguably costing Toyota yet another Le Mans win.
Another look at the Kobayashi stop may reveal the unbelievable reason for the failure. As the Toyota driver neared the end of the pit lane, a marshal stopped him at pit out as per the regulations. Cars are only permitted to leave the pit once one of the three safety car “trains” have passed pit out.
Then, from driver’s right, someone appears in orange overalls similar to that of a marshal and gives Kobayashi the thumbs up sign. Kobayashi, thinking that this gives him clearance to return to the track, begins to move – but then stops abruptly, perhaps after being reminded by the team that he wasn’t permitted to enter the track.
Even more unbelievably, the man in the orange overalls appears to bear on his overalls the logo of SO24!, a racing team who had partnered up with Algarve Pro Racing to enter the #45 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier JSP217. It’s unclear whether there is a link between the incidents. Did an ill-advised intervention by a member of another team lead to yet another high-profile Toyota failure?
Three years ago, the Toyota TS040 of Kazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi retired from a convincing lead after 13 hours of the race as a scrutineering logger melted and cut through one of the car’s critical systems, as well as the radio link, meaning that the team were unable to even inform driver Nakajima of the impending issue.
Following the publication of this article, Algarve Pro driver Vincent Capillaire has issued a statement on his Facebook page admitting that it was he who was caught on video gesturing to the Toyota and that he merely wanted to wish Kobayashi well on his way out of the pits. According to Capillaire, he was fined by the ACO for this indiscretion.
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