For the first nine hours of the race, the #7 Toyota TS050 looked like the favorite to win this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Then, a clutch failure forced pole-sitter Kamui Kobayashi to retire the #7 just shy of the 10 hour mark after breaking down on the course and failing to limp the car back to the pits. Now, it seems that clutch failure was the result of a truly strange incident on pit lane.
As , Kobayashi was parked at the end of pit lane during a safety car period around the 9.5 hour mark of the race, waiting to head back on track. When the safety car is out at Le Mans, drivers are allowed to enter pit lane, but they can't re-enter the circuit until the safety car comes off the track. While Kobayashi was waiting, LMP2 driver Vincent Capillaire walked across pit lane and gave the Toyota driver a thumbs-up.
Capillare, who drives a Ligier for the Algarve Pro Racing team, was wearing his orange and black fire suit and helmet, an outfit that looks nearly identical to the orange safety coveralls and helmets worn by Le Mans track marshals. Kobayashi apparently thought Capillare was a marshal giving him the signal to go, and began to pull away. The Toyota team then radioed Kobayashi to stop, leading to more confusion. Watch the scene unfold here, and note how, in the darkness, Capillare's outfit could be mistaken for a track marshal's:
"From our side, we told him stop because the safety car queue was coming, and it was not possible [to exit the pits]," Toyota LMP1 technical director Pascal Vasselon . "There has been, as you can imagine, some confusion. Start, stop, start, stop.
"And the problem is that he was at the pit exit, so he was in pit mode where we started [under electric power]...he was in a mode which normally should not be used, so he has done several restarts with the clutch and the combustion engine.
"The clutch is not made at all to do that. The clutch is to start the combustion engine when the car is at speed; it’s not to start the complete car. So he had burned the clutch because he has been thrown into a situation which should not exist."
Kobayashi finally set off for real as soon as the race went back to green, but immediately, the car went into limp mode, crawling along the circuit with severely reduced power. Eventually, the car died in the Porsche curves, forcing the #7's retirement.
Up to that point, the #7 car was the only Toyota not beleaguered by mechanical problems, making it the team's best hope for winning the race. Early mechanical issues had put the #8 car out of contention, and the #9, notably slow from the beginning, retired after making with an LMP2 just minutes after the #7 quit.
In , Capillare says his gesture to Kobayashi was an honest mistake.
"Saturday evening, during the race, I was waiting for my relay, helmet on the head at my box," Capillare wrote. "I wanted to show my encouragement to the leader car, stopped at red light a few meters in front of my box. It was a spontaneous encouragement mark as it happens between pilots. I was fined by stewards for this gesture and I admit it was inopportune. I regret that."
Calling this incident bad luck for Toyota would be a huge understatement. It's impossible to say whether the #7 car would have gone on to win had this not happened, but this inadvertent incident robbed Toyota of its best chance at winning Le Mans.
It's hard to pin blame on anyone in this situation, but one solution seems obvious: In the future, maybe organizers shouldn't allow race teams to dress their drivers so similarly to the track marshals.