Le Mans LMP1: Alonso adds to Triple Crown bid with #8 Toyota win

Toyota broke its 24 Hours of Le Mans curse with an emotional 1–2 finish led home by the #8 car of Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso.

#8 and #7 Toyota TS050 Hybrids / Toyota Gazoo Racing

The Japanese marque was the overwhelming favourite coming into the 86th running of Le Mans, and aggressive opening stints from both Buemi and the #7 car’s Mike Conway soon put the two TS050 Hybrids well ahead of the privateer LMP1 entries battling for third.

The #7 gained the advantage late on Saturday when Buemi earned the #8 car a 60-second stop-go penalty for speeding in a slow zone. But a pair of rapid nighttime recovery drives by first Alonso and then Nakajima saw the #7’s lead disappear. Nakajima then completed the #8’s comeback in the 16th hour by snatching first place from Kamui Kobayashi on the inside of Arnage.

The #8 went on to hold the lead for the remaining eight hours, while the #7 dropped back after a series of late difficulties that included Jose Maria Lopez spinning at the Dunlop chicane and Kobayashi missing a pit stop and needing to take an extra lap at full course yellow speed to save fuel.

In the end Nakajima brought the #8 Toyota across the line with two laps in hand over Kobayashi in the sister car, which was a further ten laps clear of the #3 Rebellion in third. The win was Toyota’s first at Le Mans after 19 attempts and the first by a Japanese manufacturer since Mazda in 1991. Nakajima meanwhile became the first Japanese driver to win since Seiji Ara did so with Audi in 2004.

#3 Rebellion Racing R13 / Joao Filipe, WEC Media

Behind the Toyotas, Rebellion and SMP Racing immediately established themselves as the chief contenders for best-of-the-rest.

After Andre Lotterer lost the nose of his #1 Rebellion in a first lap collision, it was Thomas Laurent in the sister #3 who took charge of the Swiss team’s race by pressuring the #17 SMP of Stephane Sarrazin for third.

The two Frenchmen and their subsequent replacements swapped third and fourth position several times in the opening hours of the race, although the battle was eventually ended early and in Rebellion’s favour when Matevos Isaakyan spun the #17 into the barriers at the Porsche Curves shortly after midnight.

Isaakyan’s crash came not long after Dominik Kraihamer spun the #4 ByKolles out of the race at the same part of the track. The #10 Dragonspeed was another casualty of the Porsche Curves with Ben Hanley finding the barriers in hour 17, while the Manor-run #6 CEFC Ginetta and the #11 SMP were both waylaid by mechanical troubles to make it five LMP1 retirements by the end of the race.

That left the #1 Rebellion—which recovered from its opening lap crash and several late penalties to take fourth—and the #5 CEFC Ginetta, as the only surviving LMP1 cars outside of the podium.

#6 CEFC Ginetta G60-LT-P1 / Joao Filipe, WEC Media

One Grand Prix – Stephane Sarrazin

He is currently competing in the  World Endurance Championship for Toyota,  the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for Rebellion and has competed for the Venturi and Techeetah Formula E Teams. He has raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans sixteen times and competed at the 24 Hours of Daytona. He has also competed in the World Rally Championship and in V8 Supercars, but Stephane Sarrazin only ever had one Formula One race to his name.

Sarrazin was a test driver for the Prost Formula One team when a chance came to race at the 1999 Brazilian Grand Prix. Luca Badoer had sustained an injury during testing and Minardi asked for Sarrazin to replace him in Brazil.

Badoer had raced for Minardi in Australia, he retired with gearbox issues. The Grand Prix was won by Eddie Irvine in the Ferrari, he was joined on the podium by Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Jordan-Mugen-Honda) and Ralf Schumacher (Williams-Supertec). Now it was onto Brazil and the call came through from Minardi for Sarrazin to step in and replace Badoer.

“I was reserve driver for Prost and suddenly Minardi called for a drive,” Sarrazin was quoted as saying.

As the teams took to the track for practice it was Ricardo Zonta who would receive an injury after a big crash in Saturday practice that would see him out of the race.

Sarrazin qualified 17th out of the 21 drivers, he out-qualified his team mate, Marc Gene but the Minardi was over three seconds off Hakkinen who took pole. Sarrazin was over a second slower than the next car in front of him, the Williams-Supertec of Alex Zanardi.

It was Hakkinen who went off into a commanding lead, Coulthard stalled on the grid and he was pushed into the pit lane where he rejoined on lap 4. On lap 10 Benetton’s, Alexander Wurz and Jordan’s Damon Hill collided which ended Hill’s race.

Sarrazin entered the straight on lap 31, there two reports that either his throttle stuck or he had a wing failure, but whatever the problem was, it sent him crashing into the wall and this effectively ended his only Formula One Grand Prix.

It was the disappointment afterwards that hurt Sarrazin.  After Brazil, Minardi asked him to complete the 1999 season with them. He states they called the Prost team many times but team principal, Alain Prost was adamant that Sarrazin would be driving for Prost. He placed a block on him moving to the Minardi team.  Sarrazin decided to be patient.

The following season he finished second in the Formula 3000 championship behind Nick Heidfeld. Prost told Sarrazin, “Sorry, I cannot take you, I have to take Nick for Mercedes engines for the year after.”

Sarrazin was heartbroken. He felt that he should have been stronger and taken the decision to join Minardi when the opportunity was presented. Despite this and the fact he only ever race once in Formula One, Sarrazin has gone on to have a successful racing career in other forms, he has finished 2nd on four occasions at Le Mans.

Just the single F1 Grand Prix but Sarrazin had many other races about him.

See you at the chequered flag

Neil Simmons

Twitter: @world_racing