WEC: Heartbreaking finish to dominant Le Mans performance for Mike Conway

18th June 2019

Mike Conway’s 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours ended in heartbreak as the #7 Toyota ran as the leader of the race for 23 hours, after starting on pole position, until the final hour when his car suffered a puncture and lost the lead - finishing second to the sister Toyota.

The final race of the 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship and the biggest race of the year, the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours, got underway on Wednesday last week as 183 drivers and 62 cars arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe to contest the iconic race weekend.

The three-man driver line up of Mike, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López started the week off in a strong fashion, with Mike and the #7 team finishing the four-hour free practice session top of the timesheets by almost two seconds and recording more laps than any other car - gathering vital data for the race weekend ahead.

The first of three qualifying sessions took place on Wednesday night in the darkness and for Mike, it was a session of mixed fortunes. Despite rain earlier in the day, the track was dry for the start and Kamui went faster than any car at the same stage of the week last year and put the team at the top of the timesheets to secure provisional pole.

As the session reached the final 45 minutes, Mike was caught up in an accident as an LMP2 car drove into the path of the #7 Toyota at the final chicane, causing damage to the front left of the #7 and requiring a 25-minute repair. After a fantastic effort by the team, the car was able to return to the track for the end of the session but required an overnight chassis change before the second and third qualifying sessions.

“It was a pity about the incident because the session had gone really well until then. I slowed down then saw headlights: I tried to pull out of the way but it was difficult to see the car and unfortunately we made contact. I’m sorry for the crew that they had a lot of extra work to do, but they did a great job to get the car back out at the end of the session.”

Thursday’s decisive final qualifying sessions took place in dry conditions, setting the scene for a pole position shoot-out, with the starting grid determined by the best single lap time from any of the three two-hour qualifying sessions.

At the beginning of the evening session, held in daylight, Kamui took new tyres and low fuel for a qualifying attempt in the opening minutes, with Kamui improving on his time from Wednesday as he recorded a rapid 3:15.467-minute lap time in the second qualifying.

After that, the team used the remaining time in the session to focus on race preparations and optimising the TS050 HYBRID for the twice-around-the-clock race.

After sunset, the final qualifying took place and saw Kamui attempt another set of flying laps at the beginning of the session but yellow flags and traffic prevented any improvement before a switch to race preparation took priority.

When the chequered flag fell after a combined six hours of qualifying, the #7 TS050 HYBRID had secured pole position for the legendary 24-hour race as they led a Toyota front-row lockout.

“A big thank you to everyone who helped to get the car ready for qualifying after the accident yesterday. It was not easy but they put in so much effort and we have repaid them with the pole. It was a great lap from Kamui and a huge team effort. After Kamui's lap we focused on getting the car ready for the race. It has been a positive day and it's nice to get the extra point.”

 

Race


In front of 252,500 spectators, Mike took the start of the 87th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours in the pole-sitting #7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid and stated his intent in his opening stint as he maintained the lead over the sister car and quickly stretched out a five-second lead in the early laps.

Flying out of the blocks, Mike set the fastest-ever Le Mans race lap of 3:17.297-minutes on the fourth lap of the race and after the first hour of racing, Mike had built a healthy 16-second gap to the second-placed #8 car.

Delivering a superb quadruple stint on the same set of Michelin tyres to begin the race, Mike had increased his lead to over 40 seconds and handed the driver duties over to Kamui after completing 43 laps.

It was a good first stint. The car felt good and I could push straight away. I kept it all clean on the first lap then pushed hard. I was able to pull away from the sister car and build a good gap.”

A solid stint from Kamui saw the #7 stretch its lead to almost a minute and as night descended on the 13.626km circuit, José jumped behind the wheel for his first stint of the race.

The minute advantage the #7 team had pulled out was wiped up and the race effectively reset as a series of safety cars and full-course yellows put the sister car right on the tail of the #7 Toyota.

In hour seven and with the race reaching full darkness, a full-course yellow was caused by the #3 Rebellion hitting the barriers, which allowed the #8 Toyota to take a cheap pit stop which meant the #7 slipped out of the lead of the race for the first time.

The full-course yellow then changed into a safety car period which brought José onto the tail of the #8 and he soon passed the sister car to retake the lead. However, a small mistake saw José run wide at Mulsanne corner, taking a trip through the gravel and falling back to second place.

Mike then took over driver duties from José and began to hunt the #8 car down and Mike was able to switch the ten-second deficit to the sister car to a seven-second advantage during a rapid stint and when he completed his second stint of the race the #7 Toyota remained in the lead of the race with Kamui at the wheel.

As the sun rose and the race hit the 15-hour mark, José took the #7’s 22nd stop of the race, and led the sister car by more than 70 seconds and after another full-course yellow for a spinning GTE AM car, the gap was stretched to more than 80 seconds.

As the clock began to count down, Mike was back behind the wheel as the race hit the 20-hour point and led the race by more than two minutes as the clock reached the final four hours.

However, Mike and the team were forced into an unplanned pitstop during a full-course yellow, but the lead gap was big enough that Mike was able to hand the car over to Kamui still with the dominant two-minute lead over the #8 machine.

With less than an hour remaining, and with a healthy two-minute lead over second place, José suffered a puncture. One tyre was changed at the subsequent pit stop but a sensor issue led to the wrong tyre being identified.

This meant that José returned to the track still with a deflating tyre and had to limp his way around the entire 13.626 km circuit, allowing the sister #8 car to snatch the lead of the race.

With the tyre finally changed and the car back up to racing speed, José was a minute behind with just over thirty minutes remaining on the clock.

Reducing the gap to 18 seconds at the finish, José crossed the finishing line to end the race in second place to deliver another runner-up finish for the #7 car and Mike - his third-second place at the legendary race.

“It’s a tough outcome because we were looking good for a long, long time but we just got unlucky with the puncture. That’s Le Mans. Everyone on the team did a great job, especially the car crew. All credit to them for giving us a car that ran at the front all day. Congratulations to car #8 not just today but also for winning the World Championship. They have been formidable opponents but it has been a lot of fun. We will be pushing to come back stronger.”

The result meant that Mike and his #7 team finished 2nd in the Drivers’ Championship with 157 points after collecting four pole positions, seven podiums and two race victories over the 2018/19 Super Season.

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