Kazuki Nakajima says Toyota’s maiden victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been a “long time” coming, following multiple heartbreaking defeats for the Japanese manufacturer in recent years.
Nakajima and co-drivers Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso led a dominant 1-2 finish on Sunday, in a near-flawless run for the pair of Toyota TS050 Hybrids, which faced virtually no direct competition.
Despite the relatively straightforward race, Nakajima, who becomes the third Japanese driver to claim overall victory at Le Mans, believes they are deserving winners, having shown increased performance and bullet-proof reliability compared to last year’s run.
The No. 8 Toyota completed 388 laps, 21 laps more than last year’s winning Porsche 919 Hybrid, with Buemi’s fastest race lap of 3:17.658 nearly one-second quicker than last year’s best time.
“It’s a great feeling to be here finally, it has been a long time,” Nakajima said post-race. “I had really good teammates and Toyota gave us a really strong car.
“Finally we managed to finish the race without issues on both cars.
“I feel like we all deserve to win the race. We had a bit more luck I guess.
“To win this race has been a big dream for Toyota since 1985. There have been many, many guys involved in the project so I’m happy to be here to represent everybody.”
Nakajima said he felt calmer this year taking the car to the finish, two years after engine issues in the final ten minutes denied he and co-drivers Buemi and Anthony Davidson victory.
“I think I was happier to be in the car rather than watching from the outside,” he said.
“My teammates can prove that, but especially after that experience I’m pretty sure Seb was close to having a heart-attack!
“In the car, it was difficult and of course I thought about it but I think the whole of the team kept focus until the end of the race and the checkered flag. I believe that brought us the victory.”
It marked the first Le Mans wins for all three drivers, including two-time Formula 1 world champion Alonso, who becomes the 25th rookie to win the race.
“Right now I am maybe a little bit in shock because we were so focused on the race and so stressed at the end [watching] the television,” Alonso said.
“I am not used to watching my car, I am normally in it.
“It was quite a tense 24 hours with two cars within one minute more or less for the whole race. Right now I am just trying to enjoy every single second of this moment.”
Vasselon: Trouble-Free Run “Satisfying”
Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon has hailed the win as “satisfying” for the fact that neither Toyota encountered mechanical issues throughout the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic.
Both cars ran trouble-free but each encountered penalties for speeding in Slow Zones, with the runner-up finishing No. 7 entry also getting handed with two fuel-related infractions in the final hour due to a driver error.
“Our pace was clear,” Vasselon told Sportscar365. “It had to be like that; we were always pushing. Our pace followed exactly the same trend as last year, just one second faster.
“In many aspects it’s satisfying because we had progress in terms of performance and the reliability has been perfect.
“It’s really a reward. We’ve come so close and every time we were looking like idiots. When we had the feeling we were reasonably well prepared in the end, we have done it.”
Vasselon said Kamui Kobayashi’s fuel-related issue was due to the Japanese driver missing the pit lane on his scheduled stop due to a likely “loss of concentration.”
He explained it was one of the many scenarios the manufacturer prepared for in its extensive simulation program.
The team ordered Kobayashi to use the car’s Full Course Yellow engine map, which consumed less fuel, in order to complete the additional lap.
“He just missed to pit,” Vasselon said. “But we were not nervous as we anticipated it.
“It was one of the items in our list. ‘What if the driver doesn’t pit?’ We had a bit more fuel and we knew we just needed a bit more of fuel saving to finish the lap.”