Kamui Kobayashi must wonder what it will take for him to win the 24-Hours of Le Mans after watching his team cede the lead of the race – thanks to a puncture – during the final hour of the 2019 edition of the legendary race, adding to the last lap heartache he suffered at the same race in 2016.
The #7 car which the former F1 driver shared with Mike Conway and José María López had set the pace all night, even with Fernando Alonso in the sister #8 car they could not close the gap as Kobayashi was in top form and clearly adamant to win this time out.
But Lady Luck had other plans for him – a puncture – which ultimately handed victory to Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima teammate while the ‘big trophy’ remained within the family, unlike in 2016 when Porsche inherited victory.
While Ms Luck showed her cruel hand by abandoning Kamui and his crew on Sunday around 2pm, with the other hand she helped Fernando – who she had mercilessly abandoned at Indianapolis last month – by handing him a victory that even the Spaniard did not expect.
While Toyota has been on the receiving end of some torrid luck al Le Mans, the iconic race is littered with hard-luck tales that defy belief:
When they first had a crack at Le Mans in the late nineties, Toyota produced the GT-One, a fast and ferocious car that should have won Le Mans on the two occasions it raced there. In 1998 the car suffered a gearbox failure while among the frontrunners. In 1999 during the closing hours, Ukyo Katayama’s GT-One was homing in on the leading BMW at a rapid pace when he suffered a puncture, ending Toyota’s chances of victory.
In 1971, Ferrari entered their 312 PBs to Le Mans. Looking good for victory, Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman were leading but retired with just a couple of hours to go, handing the race to Matra. Another 312 PB driven by Carlos Pace and Arturo Merzario finished second, six laps down on the winner.
I was there 20 years later when Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot powered the nimble Mazda 787B to the unlikeliest of victories, beating the might of Jaguar, Porsche and Mercedes that weekend. When the leading Silver Arrows struck trouble, with the finish in sight, the iconic orange and green car was there to take a famous if unexpected victory.
Without doubt the most remarkable tale of a driver losing Le Mans is that of Pierre Bouillin who raced under the name of Levegh in memory of his uncle. In 1952, the Frenchman updated the Talbot T26 GS, based on the car that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans a couple of years earlier. He was to share the car with René Marchand but at the last minute, he decided to go it alone. Levegh wallowed in glory and was acclaimed by a crowd eager to see another triumph for Talbot. Victory loomed large when a tired Levegh reportedly made a mistake and broke a connecting rod on his Talbot. The despairing driver collapsed with exhaustion and fell asleep on the spot – he had just driven a 22 hours and 50 minutes stint, the longest in the history of the race. Incredibly, he had a four-lap lead before his DNF.
Today, reflecting in the immediate aftermath of another episode of this riveting 24-Hour saga, Kamui Kobayashi has every reason to feel aggrieved but may seek the comfort of knowing that he was one of the fastest, if not the fastest driver around the hallowed venue this weekend. Just like he was when he came so close in 2016.
From where I sat watching the race unfold on TV, Kamui stood out as the leading light in the darkness of a tense night at Circuit de la Sarthe.
Consider that close to midnight when he and Alonso, in their respective cars, were out on track together the Japanese driver actually increased his car’s lead from around 40 seconds to about a minute, before it steadied in the 50-something-seconds zone. It increased later with other stints.
This year’s race was alway’s Toyota’s to win and the #7 car seemed prime for the honour as it led the #8 car until the final hour of the 24, in what would have been an ideal finish for the Japanese: Kamui and his crew the winners with Fernando’s lads in second and sealing the WEC title…
Until, of course, Lady Luck tore up that script and provided her own bittersweet version of the outcome, as it has so many times in the 87-years of this great contest.