Le Mans, France – Porsche star driver Neel Jani said it best. "You don't win Le Mans," he said, "it lets you win."
And in 2017, once again, it didn't let Toyota win. Having been cruelly robbed of victory in 2016 by an engine failure on the very last lap, Akio Toyoda – himself a former amateur racer – was back with not two but three updated TS050B hybrid LMP1 cars, an international line-up of nine drivers with 48 Le Mans starts between them and one of the biggest support crews in Le Mans history.
Porsche, by contrast, brought two heavily revised 919 hybrids and an intensely focused team whose stated intention was to prove that Porsche's oddball hybrid system could survive 5000km of flat-out punishment – the equivalent of an entire Formula One season – in just one weekend.
Yeah, right. They were there to take a third straight win, and it showed.
But it wasn't going to be easy. Toyota had won the first two World Endurance Championship rounds of 2017 and Porsche was on the back foot. Le Mans, however, is different. All other WEC races are run on Grand Prix circuits; Le Mans uses just the pit straight and the first two corners of the magnificent Le Mans MotoGP track, then dives off down an access road to come out onto the D338 from Le Mans to the village of Mulsanne – a roller-coaster straight so long that by 1985 the lead cars were hitting 385km/h and in 1990 the organisers had to put in two chicanes.
At Mulsanne the circuit turns sharp right onto the back road to the even smaller village of Arnage, right again toward the the industrial area of Le Mans, before peeling off at the 240km/h Porsche Curves onto the access road to the Le Mans karting circuits and rejoining the MotoGP circuit at the very last corner. The MotoGP circuit is a little mere than five kilometres; a lap of the WEC course is almost 14 – and has been since 1923.
It wouldn't work unless the whole town gets involved, and they do. Every teenager in Le Mans seems to be working as a pedestrian marshal for the quarter million spectators, every restaurant and pub is festooned with motorsport regalia and the gardens of private homes along the D338 become pop-up hospitality areas.
But you don't get just what a Very Big Deal this event is until the drivers' parade through the town on the Friday night before the race, as locals and visitors alike line the streets 10 deep and hang perilously out of windows to cheer these modern-day gladiators.
Before that, however, comes qualifying on Thursday night. Yes, night. Because this is a 24 hour race, the drivers have to qualify in the dark. And that's when you realise just how loud these cars are. Sitting on the stands, ear protection is mandatory.
To give you some idea, the GTE-class Ferrari 488s, running completely open pipes, are the quietest cars on the circuit. The Gibson V8-engined LMP2 cars spit and crackle and howl down the straights, the Corvettes, speaking with a strong American accent, are even louder, while the shrieking four-litre Porsche 911 RSRs cut through everything – including unprotected eardrums.
The start, with 94 years of tradition behind the ritual, is electric – but the tension never lets up. No sooner have the cars settled in to some sort of pecking order than it's time for the first fuel stops – each car makes about 30 – and already there have been crashes and engine blow-ups.
The Toyotas had been decisively quicker in qualifying and set the early pace, but after three hours the No.1 Porsche had moved up to second behind the No.7 Toyota, followed by the No.8 Toyota, the No.2 Porsche and the No.9 Toyota.
Then disaster struck for Porsche, as the 294kW electric motor on the front axle of the No.2 car failed. It's a huge job to replace – the motor has to come out through the cockpit – and the car was in the pits for more than an hour, losing 22 laps and rejoining the race stone last.
But by the time we left the circuit, after midnight on Saturday, it was back up to 36th, while Toyota No.7 was leading the No.1 Porsche by just 44 seconds, a lap ahead of the No.9 Toyota, while the No.8 Toyota was in intensive care in the pit box.
At sunrise, however only one Toyota was still running – the No.8 car, way down in 14th after losing about 30 laps in the pits. One of its sister cars had crashed out at about 1.30am and the other had suffered a terminal mechanical infarction.
The No.1 Porsche was leading, the No.2 car had fought its way back up to eighth and in second, to the team's total surprise, was the LMP2 Oreca of Jackie Chan DC Racing.
The race, it seemed, was Porsche's to lose but, with less than four hours to go, the No.1 Porsche suffered a total loss of engine power in the worst possible place, just past the pits, due to what the team later said was an oil pressure issue. Given that the 919 has an electric oil-pump, it's more likely that it was an electrical gremlin, but nobody at Porsche was saying anything...
Andre Lotterer, who was driving at the time, tried to complete an entire lap on battery power only, but near the end of the Mulsanne straight the car rolled to a stop and it was all over for Porsche – which put the No.38 Jackie Chan Oreca LMP2 in the lead, with 19-year-old rookie Thomas Laurent at the wheel. That's about the equivalent of a test driver leading a Formula One Grand Prix in a McLaren!
All eyes turned to the No.2 Porsche, three laps down in fourth and circulating 10-15 seconds a lap quicker than the Oreca. Suddenly a podium finish, and first in the LMP1 class, was on the cards for the 919. Brendon Hartley began the charge of a lifetime, taking immense risks to avoid being held up by slower cars, running the big Porsche as hard as he dared after 4400km at race pace.
With a little more than two hours to go, he was up to second, just one lap down on the leader, and handed the car over to Timo Bernhard for the final stint. Thanks to a perfect pit stop by a crew that had been running on pure adrenalin for 22 hours, Bernhard was soon able to pass the Oreca, unlapping himself and putting the Porsche on the same lap as the leader, Dutch-born Ho-Pin Tung in the No.38 Oreca.
Then, with almost exactly an hour to go, Bernhard moved into the lead, eighteen and a half hours after rejoining the race in 55th and last place.
And after the longest hour of their lives for the entire Porsche crew, the pit lane erupted into an instant party as Bernhard brought the No.2 Porsche home for a stunning last-to-first victory that will become the stuff of legend in years to come, as will the astonishing runner-up finish by the second-tier squad of Jackie Chan Racing.
Nineteen-year-old Thomas Laurent, at the end of his very first Le Mans, stepped onto the podium bridge, looked around in bewilderment – and took a selfie, as if to prove to himself tomorrow that it really happened.
But that evening the iconic ACO trophy stood on the bar in the Porsche hospitality centre for all to see and touch as the party of the ages got underway, Cheers erupted every time Earl Bamber, who put in an incredible night stint, Brendon Hartley, who charged through the field on Sunday morning, and Timo Bernhard, who kept his head and brought it home when few could have, showed their faces.
Except for Andre Lotterer, standing stony-faced off to one side in his own aching world of what-if and if-only. But that, as Mark Webber put it, is motor racing. That, sports fans, is Le Mans.