As the clock ticked over to 5pm local time, the safety car was still out as marshals worked to repair barriers on the Mulsanne straight after the multiple-car accident that ended the #3 Audi and #81 Ferrari’s races when a heavy rain shower hit the track.
Circulating under the SC, Alex Wurz continued to lead the race in the #7 Toyota, ahead of Lotterer in the #2 Audi, Bernhard in the #20 Porsche and Kristensen in the #1 Audi.
Franck Maileux led P2 in the #34 Race Performance Oreca, ahead of the #36 Alpine with Chatin at the wheel and #26 G-Drive Morgan-Nissan driven by Olivier Pla.
GTE Pro was headed by Oliver Gavin’s #74 Corvette, with the #91 Porsche (Pilet) and #73 Corvette (Garcia) second and third. Leading AM was Pat Long’s Dempsey Racing Porsche.
The #47 KCMG Oreca pitted under the safety car – seemingly the damage from its earlier contact with the tyre wall at the chicane was not fully resolved. Richard Bradley stayed on board as the mechanics went to work.
KCMG engineer: “The accident damage was fairly light, but it was quicker to just bring the car in and replace the rear section. No other damage.”
The #74 Corvette pitted, Gavin swapping for Tommy Milner. Both it and the #47 lost some time waiting for safety car groups to come around to the pit straight.
On lap 31, the safety cars pulled in and green-flag racing resumed, but immediately the #52 Ram Racing Ferrari (Griffin) was spotted beached in the gravel near Post 134, at the exit of the Ford Chicane. It took a while for the car to be lifted out.
Lotterer was a minute-and-a-half behind Wurz after a lap of green running, with Bernhard a further minute and 40 seconds behind. Kristensen in the fourth-place Audi was a lap down, a further lap ahead of Nicolas Prost in the first Rebellion. The damp track conditions seemed to be favouring the Audi, with Lotterer banging in quick laps.
Stephan Gervais, Rebellion Comms Director: “In qualifying, we could have pushed harder with the car, but it was important to find a good baseline to work from. We’re comfortable with that – this is not a circuit where you try and push that and take risks, particularly in these conditions.
“Being comfortable with that situation is a good place to be, particularly with the age of the car, because if you can maintain that situation here the track and the race can come to you.”
Bart Hayden, Rebellion Team Manager: “There is no strategy at the moment – it’s rather minute-by-minute. It’s early in the race and it’s impossible to plan ahead in these conditions.”
Davide Rigon pitted the #71 Ferrari from the lower reaches of the GTE Pro order – the car was pushed the last few metres to its box having apparantely ran out of fuel. Also in the pits was the #76 IMSA Porsche with a deflated wet tyre that overheated on the drying track.
Almost half-way through the hour, the GTE Pro and Am leaders (#91 and #77 Porsche) were also the first and second GT cars overall, many places ahead of the rest of the production-based field. Sun was beaming down at the pits, but intermittent rain continued to be reported between posts 18 and 31.
That rain got heavier rapidly, becoming torrential on the Mulsanne Straight, and the safety cars were quickly deployed on lap 34. The #62 AF Corse Ferrari spun under yellows with Howard Blank at the wheel but didn’t hit anything and kept going.
Disaster followed for two of the major LMP2 runners as Karun Chandhok in the Murphy Oreca came together with the #41 Greaves Zytek of Michael Munneman – the latter coming off significantly worse with heavy front right suspension damage. Both cars were able to limp away, though.
The #8 Toyota re-emerged from its garage after frantic work by the mechanics to get its front-end in shape again. It joined the queue at the top of the pitlane awaiting a safety car to come around.
Benoit Treluyer got in to the #2 Audi, taking over from Lotterer with a stop under the SCs on Lap 35. Rodolfo Gonzales reported trackrod, pushrod, wishbone, front splitter and bodywork damage to the Murphy car – Chandhok reported he was hit by the Greaves car.
Lee Penn, Murphy Prototypes: “Karun saw the heavy rain, lifted right off – data suggests he was doing 40-50kmh – the car suddenly snapped sideways and Karun reported it was accelerating sideways down the track with no grip. When he looked across, he saw the Greaves car doing exactly the same thing at twice the speed.”
“There’s major damage to the front of the car, bodywork, the whole floor and a broken steering arm. At least one part we needed to get from Oreca at a rush – it’ll be at least half-an-hour before we get back out.”
The #7 Toyota crew were preparing treaded wets for the leading car’s stop at the end of Lap 36. Wurz got out and was replaced by Sarrazin, while the safety car came in a lap later.
Sarrazin was left languishing at the pit exit as the safety car group including Bernhard’s Porsche swept by – the first lead change of the race, putting the #20 at the head of the field. Sarrazin wasted no time catching up on fresh wets, but Bernhard stayed in front to be scored in the lead on Lap 37.
“Absolutely no grip – I was lucky, I guess, but I’m glad to be out of the car now,” said Wurz at the end of his stint.
In the last few minutes of the third hour, Bernhard was just five seconds ahead of Sarrazin at the front of LMP1, with Treluyer holding third. Mailleux continued to lead P2, while the #77 and #92 Porsches were still in the lead of GTE Am and GTE Pro respectively.