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2018 24 Hours of Le Mans
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A Toyota torment
For all competitors completing, let alone winning, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a real challenge. For some, none more so Toyota, winning has become not just a challenge but a true torment. The bad luck suffered by the loyal Japanese manufacturer over the last decades would have had many scurrying for the exit. Toyota's persistence is praiseworthy as they decided to continue even after rivals Audi and Porsche withdrew their LMP1 efforts. This left Toyota the sole factory competitor in the top level class, so the rules were hastily adapted to allow non-hybrid, privately entered machines to enter. Just how a somewhat equal footing was achieved between the two types of cars was achieved is a matter for a different debate but suffice to say, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2018 was Toyota's to loose more than years previous. Behind the race for overall glory, the LMGTE Pro category was particularly one to look forward to with factory teams from the likes of Aston Martin, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche.
As during the last couple of editions, we had Bob van der Wolf on the ground and he returned with this 250-shot gallery.

Qualifying
The track action kicked off with a four-hour free practice session at the end of Wednesday afternoon. This was followed by three two-hour timed qualifying sessions; one on Wednesday evening and the other two on Thursday. While a good grid position for the 24 Hours of Le Mans is not crucial, the qualifying sessions did give a first impression of just how the cars stacked up on outright pace. It was not surprising that the Toyotas were fastest of all, with Kazuki Nakajima setting the fastest time of all in the #8 car he shared with Sebastien Buemi and Le Mans debutant Fernando Alonso. The fastest of the privateers, the #1 Rebellion was a full four seconds off the pole time. In the LMP2 class, it was an Oreca 07 clean sweep with the first four places filled with the French prototype, separated by just four tenths. Fastest of all was the IDEC Sport entered example. Missing from LMP1 this year, Porsche entered four 911 RSRs in the LMGTE Pro category. Two of these featured retro liveries as part of the company's 70th anniversary celebrations. These led the way in qualifying with the fastest of the two well over a second faster than everybody else. The #88 Dempsey-Proton racing entered 911 RSR grabbed the pole in LMGTE Am.

The race
At exactly 15:00 on Saturday afternoon, the 60 competitors started the 86th edition of the legendary twice around the clock race. Not surprisingly, the two Toyotas took a comfortable one-two lead from the start. During the first half of the race, the #7 car looked stronger but a superb stint from Alonso during the night turned the tables in the #8's favour. A late scare saw the #7 car slow down in during the 23rd hour but it managed to get back to the pits on fumes and resume the race. After what have been a particularly tense last couple of hours, the two TS050s broke the curse to record Toyota's first and Japan's second outright Le Mans victory. The two Rebellion cars placed third and fourth, a full 12 and 13 laps respectively behind the winning Toyota.
In LMP2, it looked like a the #26 G-Drive Oreca would grab an easy victory, having led the class almost from start to finish. The car did indeed cross the line in first place but was eventually disqualified for a fuelling infringement that allowed much shorter stops than its rivals. This promoted the Signatech Alpine A470 to first in class and fifth overall.
Subject to virtually continuous adjustments of the BOP or Balance of Performance, the LMGTE Pro class is often the most talked about. In 2016, the Ford GT was the fastest, on what was the 50th anniversary of the original GT40's Le Mans first Le Mans victory. This year, it turned out that the Porsches were the fastest, particularly down the straights. Other LMGTE Pro cars did record faster outright lap times. Conspiracy theorists will have you believe that this was just as convenient as Ford's advantage two years ago as the German manufacturer celebrated their 70th anniversary this year. In addition to the straight line speed advantage, the two retro 911 RSRs were also lucky during the safety car periods and eventually provided Porsche with a one-two finish as a birthday present. Third, and one lap down from the class winner was the fastest of the four Ford GTs.
Placing 25th overall and first in the LMGTE Am class was the #77 Porsche 911 RSR, entered by the Dempsey-Proton team after a very dominant race.

Final thoughts
Before the race much was made of the absence of real competition in LMP1 and the media frenzy surrounding the presence of Fernando Alonso. The Toyota Gazoo Racing team in general and a blisteringly fast Alonso silenced the critics with a stellar performance. The cars were faster than last year and ran almost flawlessly, so it may well have a Toyota win regardless of which other works team lined up against the Japanese manufacturer. It was more than a well deserved win and one long overdue for Toyota. For Alsonso this means that he is just one race, the Indy 500, short of his much sought after 'Triple Crown', which has only been achieved thus far by Graham Hill. Down the field there was some great racing and also some questionable moves, which provided much to talk about. For 2020, new regulations were also announced, which may open the door for other manufacturers to take on Toyota.


Report by Wouter Melissen and images by Bob van der Wolf for Ultimatecarpage.com