The #17 Porsche regained the lead of the race during the third hour after the #7 Audi made an extra stop for a slow puncture.
Lotterer started the hour flexing his muscles, setting ultra-quick laps to pull away from Bernhard’s #18 Porsche. His best lap was a 3:18.865 which is almost an all-time record lap in race conditions.
After 20 minutes, he’d extended the lead gap to 10 seconds, as the #17 was unable to match the ultimate pace. When the cars came in for their third stops, the first driver change was made when Lieb jumped into the #18 to replace Jani.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Lotterer’s Audi up front though, as he had to pit again after a short stint of just a few laps that handed the lead back to Porsche. Treluyer climbed aboard the #7 for his first stint in the car and it was later revealed that a slow puncture forced the leader to come in so soon. Hartley in the #17 Porsche was then the race leader.
Further down the order Toyota was still running on the lead lap as the third hour ended, but continued to lag behind on pace. The #23 Nissan, which started the race late after clutch issues, was finally beginning to climb off the bottom of the order on the screens.
Just as the race started to get back into a rhythm, a major incident involving the #8 Audi brought out the safety car for a second time. Duval went head-on into the armco on the run up to Indianapolis after clipping the #51 AF Corse Ferrari, a multiple car tangle seemingly caused by confusion over the end point of a yellow flag zone and the start of an near adjacent slow zone to protect a marshal recovering debris at Indianapolis.
The #50 Larbre Corvette and #95 Aston Martin were first to encounter the flashing yellow lights into Indianapolis – they both checked up, the two cars almost alongside and effectively blocking the road – first to stumble was the #99 Aston martin, taking to the left in avoidance with the #18 Porsche almost hitting the back of the GTs and then the #51, linking right as Duval arrived at high speed, went to the right to avoid an effective wall of slower cars, clipped the Ferrari, lost control and spun the car across to the outside, the #8 hitting the barrier with considerable force causing damage front and rear. The Frenchman was able to restart.
Duval managed to get back to the pits, at some speed, for a ludicrously quick stop of just four minutes and 12 seconds to repair the damage by the Audi crew. Di Grassi climbed in for his first stint and rejoined the race in eighth overall.
The safety car was then deployed to cover repair of the barriers and clear the debris. It handed the leading #17 Porsche of Brendon Hartley a sizeable advantage by being behind the safety car ahead of the rest of the pack, giving the car a two-and-a-half minute lead as the hour ended. It was a Porsche 1-2-3 (#17, #18, #19) with three hours down and 21 to go.
We kicked off the third hour with a change for fifth in LMP2, with Estre easing the #34 Oak Ligier ahead of the young Frenchman Berthon in the #48 Murphy. It was a brief honour, and a couple of minutes later the Oak was seen taking a spin at the first chicane.
The track there was evidently still treacherous, but it wasn’t the only place where P2 cars were finding it hard to hold on to the black stuff. The Oak was barely up and running again before Sharp was going for a pirouette at Tertre Rouge in the #31 ESM Ligier.
The race then entered its next round of pitstops, with the LMP1 cars starting the trend, and followed about 10 minutes later by the P2 runners. Both the KCMG (still leading) and the Murphy appeared capable of going further on a tank than many of the others, and when Bradley pitted at 17:24, that allowed Berthon back into the lead once more, but it was a deceptive situation. With almost everyone else having already pitted, the true position wasn’t clear until well past the half-hour mark, and the situation then resolved into a top 10 that offered the following:
With 39 laps completed by the LMP2 cars (43 for the leaders), the #47 continued to lead from the #46, with the Greaves Gibson #41 up to third and the #34 fourth, followed by the Signatech Alpine #36 and the Murphy Oreca #48. Seventh place fell to the #43 Team Sard Morand Morgan, followed by the #26 G-Drive Ligier and the #42 Strakka Dome. Ninth and tenth were the #28 G-Drive and, out of sequence on the pitstops, the #27 SMP Racing BR01. It would subsequently drop back.
Ten minutes before the end of the hour, there was an incident at Indianapolis that resulted in debris on the track and the imposition of a slow zone. Seconds later this became far more serious – as described above. No P2 cars appeared to be directly involved in the incident and all continued. With damage to the barriers, as well as yet more debris on the track, the safety car was deployed at 17:56. As the hour ended, with the safety cars still circulating, the LMP2 order stood at: #47, #46, #36, #48, #34, #41, #43, #26, #42, #28, #38. They’d completed 43 laps, compared to 47 for leaders.
GTE Pro & GTE Am
With Lamy having handed the #98 GTE Am Aston over to Dalla Lana early (as was their emerging strategy) the second round of pitstops commenced with Griffin bringing the AF Corse Ferrari in after 27 laps to give the car to Cameron. A cluster of Pro cars followed; driver changes for the #51 AF Ferrari (Fisichella), #64 Corvette (Milner) and #91 Porsche (Christensen) most prominent. The Aston drivers stayed aboard their respective cars.
The Am class was all go as Goethe’s #96 Aston appeared in pit lane with serious front-end damage – its left-front wheel pushed back hard into deranged suspension and bodywork. Immediately wheeled into its garage, the attention soon shifted to Cameron’s #55 Ferrari, which was moving slowly with a left-rear puncture having run third in class thanks to Griffin’s earlier pace. Cameron returned to the track 10th. This moved Parisy’s AAI Porsche up to ninth, the #68 car quietly showing progress.
As the pit cycles settled, Bleekemolen was now leading the Am class, slowly extending the gap ahead of Dalla Lana’s yo-yoing #98 Aston Martin and pushing on to set the Viper’s fastest lap of the race, a 3:58.964. Shaytar was now aboard the #72 SMP Ferrari and wasn’t too happy with third, soon demoting Dalla Lana. Further back the #83 AF Corse 458 had put a move on the #77 Dempsey Porsche for fifth. The #50 Corvette was also circulating again, having lost five laps in the pits.
While the Am class took the GT spotlight, the Pro category had been temporarily a little more settled. Thiim’s Aston still led by five seconds from Stanaway in the sister car, who’d clawed back second place from Fisichella’s Ferrari. The AF Corse car was a victim in the incident involving the #8 LMP1 Audi, being tagged on the right-hand side as the prototype lost it under braking and skewed sideways.
It appeared that the #99 Aston had jinked left onto the run off in braking for a slow zone approaching Indianapolis and also to avoid the #50 Corvette, which was braking hard too. A wall of GT cars gave the #8 Audi no space in which to brake. Fisichella pitted immediately and the Safety Car was deployed.