It was a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster: there were just four minutes of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours remaining and Toyota looked to have the race victory in the bag – until the unthinkable happened.
After 23 hours and 56 minutes of reliable running, the failure of a simple intercooler pipe forced the leading TS050 Hybrid to stop on the start/finish straight, in full sight of the grandstands, just as the car had embarked on its final lap.
Toyota has entered a total of 44 cars at Le Mans since 1985, but has never won. Agonisingly, 2016 was the third time the Japanese manufacturer has had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
In 1994, a weld in the leading 94C-V’s gearbox linkage failed with only 90 minutes to go. Five years later, a tyre blowout delayed its fastest GT-One with less than an hour remaining, ending any hopes of the car chasing down the BMW that went on to win the race.
Last year’s failure, which handed victory to Porsche, was particularly galling for the three drivers of the leading Toyota: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson. The latter says: “As far as we were concerned, we’d won the Le Mans 24 Hours. I’d raced the best sports car race of my career – that’s why it hurt even more.
“People say you make your own luck and that’s nonsense, especially in racing. Clearly life’s not fair. If the car fails on you, it’s bad luck that’s out of your control.”
Davidson, who has nine Le Mans starts under his belt, has every right to feel harshly treated by the world’s most famous endurance race. In 2010, the Briton – then driving for Peugeot – lost out on the top spot, despite blistering pace in the event’s final hour, due to an engine failure for the number one 908 HDi FAP.
Then in 2012, Davidson’s first Le Mans with Toyota nearly ended his career when he was clipped by a Ferrari 458 at 200mph, just before the entry to Mulsanne Corner. It sent his TS030 Hybrid flying through the air and into the barriers. The impact broke his back.
“Le Mans has been a bitch to me,” he says. “You go through years of torture for the race with a carrot dangled in front of your face all the time, and it keeps getting pulled away at the last second.
“It just feels like a Le Mans win is never going to happen. I was so desperate to win it, but something always gets in the way.”
Toyota’s preparations for this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours are in full swing. The manufacturer is determined not to let victory escape again. This weekend’s World Endurance Championship opener at Silverstone will offer the first indication as to the raw pace of the revised TS050 Hybrid compared to the latest evolution of Porsche’s 919 Hybrid, but the 2017- spec Toyota has recorded more than 18,000 miles of testing, including four 30-hour endurance runs.