TOYOTA claimed their third consecutive Le Mans 24 Hour title on Sunday after negotiating a “roller coaster” 88th edition of the motorsport classic staged without its usual quarter of a million diehard fans due to Covid-19.

Kazuki Nakajima, sharing the driving with Swiss Sebastien Buemi and New Zealander Brendon Hartley, took the chequered flag at 1230 GMT, precisely one day, 387 laps and 36 pit stops after setting off from third on the grid at the famed endurance race’s La Sarthe circuit.

“Our race was a real roller coaster, but everyone did a fantastic job and sometimes it seems we have a bit more luck than the other guys,” said Nakajima, in reference to Toyota’s second entry.

Driven by Briton Mike Conway, Japanese Kamui Kobayashi and Argentine Jose-Maria Lopez, the No7 Toyota had set out from pole and was looking good for victory at the halfway point.

But a half an hour pit stop during the night for a turbo change ruined their race.

They eventually finished third behind the Rebellion of American Gustavo Menezes, Frenchman Norman Nato and Ayrton Senna’s nephew Bruno.

The private team’s entry put up a stoic fight but was unable to match the Toyota No8’s power, coming in second, five laps adrift.

The winning team had a new element from 2018 and 2019 with Hartley, a winner with Porsche in 2017, stepping in for Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion who skipped the hat-trick bid to concentrate on his return to F1 next season.

“It’s been a steep learning curve coming in and replacing Fernando and these two guys have really helped me getting to speed with this very complicated and fast race car,” said Hartley.

It was by no means all plain sailing for the 2020 victors, as Buemi related.

‘Luck began to turn’

“We had lots of problems after the start with especially a puncture and at one stage we were saying we’d have to change parts.

“We lost two laps and at that stage thought we couldn’t win. Then a few laps later luck began to turn in our favour and we found ourselves in the lead and winning by five laps.

“It’s proof, once again, that in the 24 Hours things can change right up to the finish.”

No one knows that more than Kobayashi.

The Japanese driver looked on target to win last year before a puncture with an hour to go gifted victory to his teammates. This time it was a faulty turbo that ruined his chances of finally winning Le Mans after three seconds.

He made his frustration clear as he climbed out of his car in the pits.

After the race he said: “It’s always difficult to win Le Mans but we weren’t expecting to have this sort of problem.”

In fourth, and last place in the elite LMP1 race’s five-car grid came Rebellion’s other car, with the Enzo of Tom Dillmann, Bruno Spengler and Oliver Webb retiring after 97 laps.

As the only constructor in the compact grid, Toyota were hot favourites to prevail in a race that was first run in 1923, 14 years before the first Toyota saw the light of day.

In the other categories, the Oreca of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Philip Hanson won LMP2 for the team belonging to American Zak Brown, the McLaren F1 team’s owner.

Aston Martin won both the LM GTE professional and amateur races.

Le Mans organisers ACO are introducing changes to attract more interest in the elite division with the introduction of the new hypercar from 2022.

Next year Le Mans will be hoping the fans can return, their absence touched upon by Hartley when he said: “The message to the fans is ‘we miss you and you’re a big part of this race for us as well.”