Toyota driver Kamui Kobayashi snagged the lead position ahead of this year's 24 Hours Le Mans by setting an impressive lap record. His number seven car is seen as the heavy favorite to win in one of the world's most grueling races. But in a series of unfortunate events, a clutch failure sent the #7 car to a shocking retirement, just shy of the 10-hour mark after breaking down on the track and failing to maneuver the race car to the pits. It seems that the clutch failure was the outcome of a truly unusual occurrence on the pit lane.
The unexpected clutch failure that doomed Toyota's leading Le Mans 24 Hours challenger was an indirect effect caused by Kobayashi mixing up an LMP2 driver in the pitlane for a race marshal. Kobayashi, who took over the #7 TS050 Hybrid he shared with both Stephane Sarrazin and Mike Conway to pole position with a record-setting lap in qualifying rounds around Thursday, had a snug lead when the race car was struck with a clutch problem in the 10th hour of the race. The clutch unfortunately overheated during a safety car period where Kobayashi took over Conway and was positioned at the end of the pitlane in front of a red light awaiting the train of cars assembled at the back of the safety car to pass.
Then what Kobayashi perceived as the marshal giving a thumbs up for him to leave the pits, he then started to speed off when he was told over the radio to immediately stop, in the process the constant stopping and starting the car caused the clutch to overheat, ultimately damning the #7's race. The "assumed" marshal is in fact the LMP2 driver Vincent Capillaire, who was donning an orange and black fire suit and helmet, an outfit that looks nearly identical to the orange safety coveralls and helmets worn by the track marshals.
Capillaire in a Facebook statement, said that he was waiting for his relay, and to show encouragement to the lead car, he went over to Kobayashi and gave a thumbs up. He added that it was a spontaneous move to encourage the drivers, and he admitted that it was inappropriate at that time and he was fined by Stewards for the gesture. LMP2 driver Roman Rusinov, whose number 26 G-Drive Racing LMP2 was an early victim at the race when a Russian driver collided with a GTE Porsche, said that he understands that the Japanese driver was confused, having had a similar occurrence as him.
Rusinov stated that when he was called to the weighbridge, he suddenly saw a marshal waving at him so he left the technical zone. He admitted that this was his mistake, one can't go until you are rolled out which in turn he was reprimanded. Rusinov sympathized with Kobayashi, and said that if he was in the place of Kobayashi, he would think it was the marshal due to the limited visibility inside the car paired with the poor visibility outside.
Toyota tech boss Pascal Vasselon spoke to French newspaper L'Equipe and hoped that Capillaire would somehow apologize to Toyota for indirectly costing the team the ultimate prize that they have chased for so long. He commented that they understood that there were no bad intentions but they think that Capillaire did not think through the consequences of the gesture. Hopefully next year, Toyota will finally clutch the win.