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Le Mans 2019: how cruel is this sport?

Bryan Edwards

Motor racing is, sometimes, the cruellest of sports. There was no competition for the Toyota Hybrids as they closed out their season and the end of their very successful venture into LMP1. And, as the race wore on, it was clear that the early lead taken by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez developed into a routine. Nothing would stop them winning their first major race and it was well deserved. Then the tech started to play up..

Fernando Alonso had spent much of Saturday morning having a hissy fit: this race was the last in a "super-season" that was, for reasons of rescheduling future seasons, extra long. That meant that it had two Le Mans 24 hours races in one season. Alonso came for the first time in 2018 and conquered. And, of course, he wanted to conquer again. But for reasons that no one could put their finger on, his car, number 8, was a whisker off the pace of Conway's car, number 7, all through the preparations for the race. And as the flag dropped and the race started in the modern, rolling start, fashion, the only thing that number 7 showed was no mercy. Within a lap, it was gone. Number 8 left the rest of the field and by the end of the second lap it was obvious that the only action those two would see was lapping other cars.

And so they did. Even with safety cars intervening, they trundled around in tandem, Alonso's car, no matter who was driving, never able to get within a minute and a half of Conway's. In the cool of the night it was closer than in the heat of the day. What baffled everyone was that the gap remained so constant, suggesting that once he'd got more than a pit-stop in hand, Conway and his team stopped pushing. Alonso and his team never let up.

Then, as various hazards caused chaos with the late-race strategy and final pit stops were done, Lopez left the pits on new tyres. Then the trouble began. The car reported a suspected right-front puncture. He came in, fitted new right-side tyres, and went out again. The car reported another puncture. Each time, the electronics took over and he was locked into third gear so as to minimise any consequential damage. Another tyre change. Even so, after all the delays and watching the other Toyota sail by while he was in the pits, Lopez proved that the number 7 was dominant: at the end of the race he was only 16 seconds behind having made up almost a minute in the last few laps.

The F1 refugees in car 8, Alonso, Buemi and Nakajima, were guaranteed the Championship if they finished seventh or above and short of a DNF there was close to zero chance of failing at that.

But some might argue that it's a hollow victory: Toyota had been the bridesmaid's assistant for years until, after the 2017 race, Audi and Porsche withdrew from the LMP1 Hybrid series after years of domination between them. It's difficult not to win a class when there's only one entry and Toyota's success, magical on a technical level, seems a but wimpish from a competitive standpoint. Taken from that perspective, it's easy to see why Alonso was unhappy: second is, also, last.

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