Former F1 favourite Kobayashi takes top honours at Le Mans

Henry Valantine
Kamui Kobayashi drives in the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 2021.

Former Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi took victory alongside Jose Maria Lopez at the Le Mans 24 Hour race. August 2021.

Former Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi has won the Le Mans 24 Hour race, while Robert Kubica’s LMP2 car agonisingly retired from the lead in class on the final lap.

Popular Japanese driver Kobayashi drove the last stint and brought his #7 Toyota Hypercar across the line in an emotional victory, alongside Britain’s Mike Conway and three-time World Touring Car champion, Jose Maria Lopez.

This result has been a long time coming for Kobayashi, who took pole position for the fourth time in five outings at the Circuit de la Sarthe – but had not won the race before.

He had also appeared on the podium four times, but had never made it onto the top step until this point.

Elsewhere, though, there was heartbreak for Alfa Romeo reserve driver Kubica. His team’s LMP2 car was comfortably leading its class, but they broke down on the final lap of the day-long race and could not finish, in agonising circumstances.

They would have taken P3 in the race, but Le Mans rules state cars have to cross the finish line in order to be classified – so Kubica and team-mates Louis Deletraz and Ye Yefei lost out on victory in the most gut-wrenching way possible.

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With that brought a frantic dash to the line in LMP2, with the #31 car of Robin Frijns, Ferdinand von Habsburg and Charles Milesi picking up the pieces to take the category victory in a dramatic final lap.

At the front, however, Kobayashi and his team-mates were able to build up a gap over their colleagues and the Alpine entry in the race, with the French team ending up P3 in class. Aside from this year’s appearance, Alpine also see Fernando Alonso as their “ideal” future driver, if they can tempt him back into sportscar racing.

The two Toyotas had been running closely together after a frantic rain-soaked start which saw Sebastien Buemi crashed into from behind. He and his team-mates, former Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley and former Williams man Kazuki Nakajima were able to eventually close their sister car down and re-ignite a battle for the win.

But the winning #7 car was able to put a lap on the sister #8 Toyota after it briefly shut down on the side of the track. With that, the #8 was able to get back up and running again, but at a big deficit they were unable to recover.

From then on, Kobayashi, Lopez and Conway were favourites to take the win. They managed to largely control their pace from there and survive as other cars around them suffered accidents.

Having come close on so many occasions, Kobayashi was understandably thrilled with the result after the race.

“We had so much support from Japan and we’ve had so many chances to win Le Mans, but obviously we’d always lost, but finally we won,” Kobayashi told Eurosport after the chequered flag dropped.

“We were more together as a team [this year]… we believed in each other. I think we’re stronger as a team – I think this is why we made it this time.

“I was always dreaming of winning this race. It’s an amazing atmosphere here too.

“In the future, the Hypercar category will be bigger, Le Mans will be a huge race, and I’m looking forward to fighting with them.”