Top 20 Stories of 2017
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Top 20 Stories of 2017

Top Stories of 2017, #14: An LMP2 nearly wins Le Mans

Coming in at number 14 in our Top 20 Stories of 2017 countdown is this year's Le Mans 24 Hours - the race that seemingly nobody wanted to win and that came close to being won by an LMP2 car.

Top Stories of 2017, #14: An LMP2 nearly wins Le Mans

The sight of the #5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid grinding to an excruciating halt along the start/finish straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe last year is an image that will live long in the memory of anybody that witnessed it, whether in person or on television.

That last-lap heartbreak set the tone for this year's finely-poised two-way fight between Porsche and Toyota, the last two LMP1 manufacturers standing after the disappearance of Audi.

For Toyota, there were no more excuses. The TS050 Hybrid had the edge on pace over the Porsche 919 Hybrid, and had won the opening WEC rounds at Silverstone and Spa.

For the first time, the Japanese marque entered a third car, giving it the numerical advantage over Porsche, which stuck to just two cars.

Toyota landed the first blow when Kamui Kobayashi obliterated the lap record around the current track layout on Thursday, with Kazuki Nakajima edging out the best of the Porsches to make it an all-Toyota front row later that evening.

And in the race itself, it was Porsche that suffered the first setback, as the #2 car pitted after three-and-a-half hours when it lost front-axle drive.

Toyota's chances took a dent in hour eight when the #8 car suffered a similar issue, dropping out of second place. But while Porsche got the #2 car back on track after 45 minutes, the Toyota spent the best part of two hours stuck in the garage, which would later prove pivotal.

It wasn't until the safety car was deployed in the 10th hour that things really began to fall apart for the luckless Cologne-based team, though, and the story behind the clutch problem that took out the leading #7 Toyota is one that will go down in motor racing folklore.

The seeds for its demise were sown in the pits, when LMP2 driver Vincent Capillaire was mistaken by Kobayashi for a marshal - leading to the Japanese driver starting and stopping again at the exit of the pitlane, overheating the clutch in the process.

On the first green flag lap once the safety car pulled in, the #7 ground to a halt - and that was that.

That left Toyota's hopes resting on the third-string entry, the #9, but these were dashed just 15 minutes later when Nicolas Lapierre was hit by Simon Trummer's Manor-run Oreca LMP2 at Dunlop Curve.

Of course, the beneficiary of Toyota's implosion was Porsche, who now had a massive lead over its nearest opponents for outright victory, the #38 DC Racing Oreca LMP2 and the #31 Rebellion Oreca.

With four hours left on the clock, the #1 car had a 13-lap cushion and was cruising home well off the pace of the #2 Porsche and #8 Toyota, which were back in the race and playing catch-up.

And then, more drama struck. Andre Lotterer slowed as the leading Porsche suffered a terminal oil pressure problem, and suddenly it was the #38 Jota-run DC Racing car that led outright.

Gearbox issues for the #31 Oreca meant the #38 held a two-lap lead over the #2 Porsche, setting up a thrilling tortoise-and-hare conclusion that looked like at one point it would go down to the last lap.

But, the chances of the biggest fairytale result at La Sarthe in more than 20 years took a major hit when the #38 was forced to pit for a rear bodywork change due to a faulty tail light. 

Timo Bernhard put the #2 car back on the lead lap with just over two hours to go, and with a pace advantage of some 13 seconds a lap, drafted past the DC Racing Oreca with a little over an hour to run. 

Victory number 19 was in the bag for Porsche, but the sight of Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber sharing the overall podium with two LMP2 crews - the class-winning #38 trio of Oliver Jarvis, Thomas Laurent and Ho-Pin Tung and Rebellion drivers Nelson Piquet Jr, David Heinemeier Hansson and Mathias Beche, who would later be disqualified.

Even more surreal was the LMP1 podium, which featured the #8 Toyota crew of Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson, who finished nine laps down, in second and a vacant third step.

Not a single one of the five manufacturer LMP1 cars entered for the race enjoyed a clean run; in the end it was simply about who could spend the least amount of time in the pits.

Had Porsche needed another five or 10 minutes to work on the #2 car in the garage, it would have lost Le Mans. As it was, the 919 Hybrid completed a hat-trick of wins that has put the Weissach concern in a near-unimpeachable position atop the all-time winners' list.

Click here to see the list of top 20 stories so far.

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