LE MANS, FRANCE - Kazuki Nakajima drove his Toyota to victory on Sunday in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, giving the top spot on the podium to a Japanese manufacturer for the first time since 1991.
Nakajima and co-drivers Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso made 388 laps at the 13.626-km Circuit de la Sarthe en route to Toyota’s first victory. Toyota GAZOO Racing team’s sister car, driven by Kamui Kobayashi, finished two laps behind in second.
It was the first time for a Japanese driver to pilot a Japanese team to victory in the annual endurance race, which began in 1923 and has been run almost every year since. Mazda was the first Japanese manufacturer to win the race in 1991, when three foreign drivers steered to victory. Nakajima is the third Japanese driver to win the race.
Two-time Formula One world champion Alonso was competing in the race for the first time. The Spaniard is bidding to match British driver Graham Hill’s feat of completing the Triple Crown of Motorsport, which includes wins at Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500. Alonso is a two-time winner in Monaco.
“Le Mans once a year is not enough! It needs to be every three weeks,” joked Alonso, who looked to be in trouble when Buemi was penalized for speeding in a caution zone late Saturday.
Alonso’s car was left more than two minutes behind the other Toyota but the Spaniard managed to claw back the difference through the night, putting Nakajima in position to retake the lead from Kobayashi early on Sunday.
“I felt great tonight,” Alonso said after his final stint driving. “I don’t know exactly how, but I managed to make the tires work for us at the right time despite the cool air temp. Our pace has been good and I was lucky with the traffic as well.”
In last year’s race, won by Porsche, two of the three Toyotas retired due to mechanical trouble. In 2016, the Japanese team’s No. 5 car led until three minutes remaining but lost speed and missed out on its first victory.
Former Formula One champion Jenson Button raced for the private SMP team, but the Briton’s non-hybrid car faced early problems with engine trouble that forced its retirement in the final hour.
Some 60 factory and private teams competed in the 86th edition of the race.