Endurance racing is a special beast. It’s equal mix racing and survival as the driver and the car must outlast 24 hours of racing in some of the toughest conditions. For Toyota in the 84th annual 24 Hours of Le Mans, they led most of the first 23 hours and 57 minutes but mechanical issues struck the team at the worst possible time.

Coming around for what would be the final lap, the Toyota team of Kazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson and Sebastian Buemi were on their way to victory and clinch Toyota’s first ever overall win in the legendary French race. Nakajima took the white flag and slowed down on the pit straight, stunning everyone. Three minutes before the car broke down, Nakajima reported he was losing power but still had over a minute lead. It wasn’t enough as Nakajima stopped and Neel Jani in the Porsche overtook Nakajima and with teammates Romain Dumas and Marc Leib, won on the last lap in a situation that is unprecedented in a 24 hour race. Nakajima crawled around the eight and a half mile course and eventually finished 2nd, but wound up not counting because they had to finish within six minutes.

In the other three classes, Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richeimi and American Gustavo Menezes won with Nissan in LMP2. Ford came back to honor the great Ford GT victories of the 60’s with Dirk Muller, Le Mans own Sebastian Bourdais and American Joey Hand winning in GTE Pro. And to close out GTE Amateur, the all-American Ferrari team consisting of Bill Sweedler, Jeff Segal and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell won in the final class.

To understand the enormity of Toyota’s heartbreak, this is a race that is a target for so many car companies. In a changing time of racing series around the world to cut costs, this is a rare race where there are minimal restrictions. So companies like Toyota, Porsche, Audi and Ford among others dedicate millions of dollars and thousands of hours of time over the entire year for this race. This race is important to those teams because the technology used in these race cars, like hybrid electric power for the top LMP1 class and the Ford Ecoboost engine, are likely going to be used to improve our passenger cars, as well as winning one of the most prestigious auto races in the world. A loss here in that fashion not only is heartbreaking in a racing sense but now requires Toyota to figure out what went wrong before a similar system can be put in Toyota’s on the road.

To lose this race after 23 hours and 57 minutes like that is something nobody has seen before. The closest instance in history was in 1962 when Dan Gurney broke down while leading a three hour race at Daytona (predecessor to the 24 Hours of Daytona) and stopped before the line knowing he had a big enough lead to just turn left and coast down the banking and across the line to win when the clock hit three hours. You can’t do that anymore by the way and now you must finish under your own engine power.

Anyway, Toyota survived the first couple hours when it rained, they survived the night driving through the thick forest and public roads and with a steady lead, were convinced they had the win. But fate stood in the way. It’s one thing to lose at 1 AM after 10 hours, it’s another to lose when taking the white flag. This will likely make Toyota work even harder so they can try and win next year. But regardless of the result next year, Toyota with Kazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson and Sebastian Buemi will always remember the one that got away.

About Phillip Bupp

Producer/editor of the Awful Announcing Podcast and Short and to the Point. News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. Highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

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