Portrait of a (lucky) winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

It was a Hollywood-incredible kind of outcome: After 23 hours of endlessly lapping the French countryside, works Toyota drivers Kamui Kobayashi, Indy car expat Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez were chugging toward victory in the world’s most prestigious sports car race. Part of a two-car effort entered by Toyota Gazoo Racing, the trio had dominated Le Mans up to that point when Lopez was alerted by a tire-pressure sensor that his right front was going flat. There were only about 60 minutes to go. Lopez stopped and got the tire changed. After leaving the pits, Lopez realized that the sensor was faulty and that the right-rear Michelin radial was punctured. By the time he’d completed another agonizing, low-speed lap of the 8.3-mile Sarthe circuit and changed all four tires, Lopez had lost the lead. The other LMP1 Toyota, shared by two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, swept into first for the first time during the race and held on for the win. It was the second straight Le Mans victory for Alonso, coming a month after he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and it sealed the World Endurance Championship crown for this Toyota team.

Despite a weight break and freer fuel-flow limitations for non-hybrid LMP1 prototypes in 2019, Toyota Gazoo Racing is indisputably the team to beat in its category and has been for some time now. The TS050 Hybrid was upgraded for this season with a lighter battery package and improved battery cooling. The TS050’s hybrid powertrain can generate some 10 times the wattage of a Toyota Prius system. Combining the battery system with the car’s 2.4-liter twin-turbo V-6, Toyota Gazoo estimates the LMP1’s total output to be in the neighborhood of 1,000hp. Nobody could touch them on race day, that’s for sure, as SMP Racing was the best of the rest in LMP1, placing third overall with its Russian-built BR Engineering BR1 that utilized 2.4-liter AER power. If you’re a traditionalist, and put off by the emergence and success of hybrid powertrains at the pinnacle of motorsport, stop and catch your breath for a minute. The FIA announced last week that beginning in 2021, the World Rally Championship will be contested by hybrid cars. I’m probably not the only person here who remembers how the late, great Andy Granatelli stood Indianapolis on its collective ear when he introduced his gas turbine race car, Silent Sam, to the speedway in 1967. Looks like the notion of reduced-decibel racing, or at least its environmental friendliness, is going to be more in vogue than ever.

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