WEC turning points: Toyota punctures lose 2016 title impetus in 6H Shanghai

A first win since 2014 in Fuji gave Toyota a lift in spirits heading to the penultimate round of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship in Shanghai, but two punctures for the No. 6 crew and a classy drive from the defending champions in the No. 1 Porsche meant Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas would head to Bahrain in the box seat for the championship.

With just 3.5 points to show for the opening three rounds of the season, Brendon Hartley, Timo Bernhard and Mark Webber’s title defence was effectively over by the time the WEC reconvened after the summer break for the 6 Hours of Nürburgring. With Porsche’s focus switching to the championship-leading No. 2 919 Hybrid of Jani, Lieb and Dumas – a winner at Silverstone and Le Mans – the No. 1 car’s role would become that of spoiler, taking points away from Toyota and Audi wherever possible.

It was a role they took on with relish. Consecutive victories at the Nürburgring, Mexico and COTA proved they hadn’t lost their winning touch, but Kamui Kobayashi, Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway’s breakthrough at Fuji was a timely reminder that Porsche would not have it all its own way. With the resurgent No. 6 Toyota crew just 23 points off the championship lead, Porsche was under pressure in Shanghai and even more so after Sébastien Buemi in the No. 5 TS050 Hybrid got the jump on Hartley into turn one.

Toyota’s lead was short-lived however, as Hartley retook the position just before the Safety Car came out. Buemi had slipped to fifth by the end of hour 1, but persistent problems with Audi’s refuelling rig meant the podium battle would be a two-horse race between Porsche and Toyota.

Once the track was fully rubbered-in, Kobayashi took up the challenge in hour three and repeatedly exchanged second position with Lieb before finally making the move stick into the turn 14 hairpin.

At this stage, the race was wide open. Though Conway suffered a setback when his left-rear tyre deflated with two hours to go, it could yet have proven a blessing in disguise in the event of a late safety car, since Toyota could now reach the finish with only one more stop while the No. 1 Porsche would need two.

However, before Toyota could get its hopes up, another left-rear puncture 17 laps later brought Conway back to the pits ahead of schedule, his potential strategic advantage eliminated.

It just was the break Porsche needed, as the No. 1 crew’s fourth win of the year – and Webber’s final victory in the WEC – ensured the No. 2 car would head to Bahrain with 17 points in hand instead of 10. The result also wrapped up the Manufacturers title for Porsche.  

Though Toyota was never in contention to capitalise on more problems for the No. 2 car in Bahrain, the psychological significance of the result in China – and the contribution of the defending champions to Porsche’s 2016 success – should not be underestimated.