The 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans will go down in motorsport history as one of the greatest races ever to take place. For 23 hours and 58 minutes, a battle was being waged between Toyota and Porsche. Leads were changed constantly, though clearly Toyota was a dominant force. To most, ToyotaÂ wasÂ the more dominant force on that weekend of June. Audi was the undisputed king of Le Mans through the 2000s, having won the greatest race on the planet consistently until Porsche stepped in to snatch the crown away in 2015. Now in 2016, Toyota clearly looked poised for itsÂ first-ever winÂ at theÂ most demanding, most challenging of all endurance races on the planet, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
And then the 58th minute in the 23rd hour of the 24 Hours of Le Mans came to pass. The Toyota in the lead, driven by Nakajima, slowed down. At first, things were unclear: was Nakajima slowing down to conserve fuel so that he could cross the finish line safely? Then as car number 6 got lapped by the backmarkers, the crowds did suspect something was seriously wrong. And then the car faltered down the Mulsanne Straight! And tens of thousands hearts skipped a beat. Had it run out of fuel?
I recollect standing out on the balcony at the Audi Arena, holding an Audi flag in one hand and a camera in the other, chatting to a young lady in the crowd also waving an Audi flag. Our hopes of seeing an Audi on the podium were down to zero. Nakajimaâ€™s Toyota was in the lead, followed by the two Porsches and an Audi running fourth. The Audi terrace that was usually packed to the rafters wasnâ€™t as full this afternoon. Directly opposite of the Audi Arena on the other side of the track was the Porsche hospitality area, and there’re too the few guests who had decided to stick around appeared sober. The odd of losing the crown had dulled the spirit they had come in with as reigning champions.
The next thing I remember is Kushan Mitra, a fellow scribe who pens some interesting stuff in the Pioneer running past screaming the Toyotaâ€™s going slow, the Toyotaâ€™s going slow! And the first thought everyone on that gallery might have had was what I mentioned earlier â€” Nakajima was probably conserving fuel so that he could get past the chequered flag safely. At the 23rd hour and probably the 50th minute, the Toyota rolled past where the start-finish line in and what would have been its final lap to victory. Instead it came onto the main grid and stalled. And there was silence.
I have never ever heard Le Mans go silent, forget the cars screaming on the rack. The sound of the spectators is a living breathing thing that constantly moves across the grandstands, except now it had fallen silent. In front of thousands of eyes was the one car no one expected to win the previous afternoon. Through the course of the race though the team and the drivers had marched on, showing a rare strength, made even stronger in its lack of bluster and fanfare. Toyota was winning hearts; it was going viral! And in that one moment, it broke every one of those hearts it had spent hours collecting. There it was standing deathly still right in front of the grandstands.
No one had a clue what was going on. For Toyota to win, itÂ would have had to have gone one more lap past the chequered flag. The 24th hour, as the race dictated, wasnâ€™t over, but the Toyota had no power. It wasnâ€™t moving. The dream shattered as first the Porsche sped past and then the Audi to collect the chequered flag.
The Porsche crew couldnâ€™t believe what was happening. One moment, the team-mates in the pits were holding their heads in their hands; the next those heads were screaming in delight, tears streaming down many faces.
My heart broke too. Iâ€™m not a Toyota fan, but who does not love the story of an underdog coming up from behind to emerge victorious. Except this wasnâ€™t the movies; this was real life. This was way more than Kamal Haasan jumping off a cliff after winning the girl three agonising hours later realising that her family was dead set against the union. It was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, and for once it was a place I did not want to be.
In hindsight, Toyota won more admirers by losing the battle. The fact, however, remains thatÂ ToyotaÂ lost at a time that was most critical. An athlete lives by the code that itâ€™s not the winning or losing that matters, but the taking part that counts. And yet you compete to win; you do not compete to lose. And Toyota lost while Porsche won. And that is the deal about Le Mans â€” the better man won. Wipe away the tears, remove the grief from your heart. Porsche put an equal amount of effort in keeping itÂ pace at where it was. It fought back equally hard. A few setbacks did not hold Porsche back; itÂ soldiered on. And Le Mans is all about rewarding endurance, reliability and resilience. When it mattered the most, the Porsche held on. It won! Grieve not the dead, but look up to the living!