Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Toyota's Le Mans Loss Another Motorsports Heartbreak

Three days have passed since Kazuki Nakajima pulled the #5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid to the side of the front straightaway on Circuit de la Sarthe with under four minutes to go in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and gifted Neel Jani, Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Porsche victory in one of the greatest motorsports race in the world. We still don't know which part of the car cost Toyota but knowing will probably make the loss hurt even more.

Nearly every manufacture and driver imaginable has consoled Toyota because no one wants to experience that type of heartbreak on the lowest level of motorsports let alone at Le Mans. While some probably hit their knees on Sunday night and asked a higher power never to know the pain flowing through all the Toyota team member, there are a few probably who suffered flash backs after seeing the Toyota roll to a stop a lap from glory. 

Bob Varsha recalled the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix when Felipe Massa won the race in front of the home crowd and the World Drivers' Championship was his for all of 30 seconds until Lewis Hamilton passed Timo Glock and give him 98 points to Massa's 97 points. While heartbreaking, Massa did all that he had to and a lost championship can't be pinned on one race. Massa very well could have been champion had he not spun three times at the British Grand Prix or left the pit lane with the fuel hose still attached at Singapore. 

For a disaster on as grand a stage as Le Mans, the 2011 Indianapolis 500, the 100th anniversary, is remembered for J.R. Hildebrand's contact with the turn four wall while leading on lap 200. Hildebrand didn't have a large enough of a gap to slide to victory with two wheels mangled and carbon fiber shredding off the car and Dan Wheldon took a just as improbable victory as had Hildebrand was victorious. Hildebrand and Toyota each lost the biggest race in their respective form of motorsports but Toyota had led for hours at Le Mans. Hildebrand had a good race in 2011 but had led a smattering of laps during pit cycles before finding himself in position to win the Indianapolis 500 in his first running. 

Another Indianapolis 500 disaster came to mind when I saw the Toyota stop and the Porsche go by. I wasn't alive in 1912 and I bet the last person who was saw the second Indianapolis 500 left us many years ago but Ralph DePalma could probably relate to Toyota. The Italian took the lead on lap three and led the next 195 laps. He led by five-and-a-half laps and with two laps to go, his Mercedes came to a stop after a connecting rod broke. He and riding mechanic Rupert Jenkins pushed the car down the front straightaway but they would fall five miles short. Joe Dawson led the final two laps and won the race. To add insult to injury, nine more cars completed 200 laps over the next two and a half hours and DePalma ended up 11th despite at one point being five miles from victory with no prize money to show for it.

At the time, DePalma didn't know what the Indianapolis 500 was going to become. He didn't know what he lost other than just a race and $20,000 in prize money. Fortunately, DePalma would get redemption three years later, winning the fifth Indianapolis 500 and $22,600 in prize money. 

Not everyone gets redemption and sometimes redemption comes in other forms. Hildebrand hasn't had a full-time IndyCar ride since 2012. The 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix is Massa's most recent grand prix victory. Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Andy Wallace were 15 minutes from winning the 2004 24 Hours of Daytona before a suspension failure. Wallace had already won the event three times but Stewart and Earnhardt, Jr. never had, although Stewart and Earnhardt, Jr. have made up for it in NASCAR championship and Daytona 500 victories. Damon Hill was half-a-lap from winning the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix in an Arrows over Jacques Villeneuve in a Williams but a hydraulics issue relegated Hill to second. Arrows never finished on the podium again but Hill would win the following year with Jordan. 

Nakajima, Anthony Davidson and S├ębastien Buemi have probably analyzed every lap, every gearshift, every turn of the wheel they made and wonder if they could have done something to prevent it. The best thing but likely most painful thing for them is to realize it was out of their hands and June 19th wasn't meant to be their day. What is haunting is never knowing if they will ever get that close again and if any future success can make up their Le Mans misery.