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Le Mans 24 Hours: Hour 9 Report, Finely Poised At The Front

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LMP1

Porsche found themselves back in the lead of the race, the #19 car completing its slow move to the top. The chase was on when the safety car period ended as the hour commenced. The top four were within a couple of seconds of each other racing in pitch-black conditions. Rast led the way in the #9 but struggled to create a gap in the first few laps after the restart.

Hulkenburg in the #19 was first to make a move, drafting round the outside of Webber to take second place. The German would take the lead for the first time when the #9 Audi made its stop 20 minutes into the hour.

As the battle for the lead hotted up between the #17 Porsche of Webber and #7 Audi of Fassler, the #17 was handed a one-minute stop-go penalty for overtaking under yellow. It effectively put an end to what was a thrilling scrap through traffic between the leading pair, even though it continued until the next round of stops, with Webber serving his penalty.

Webber then came straight round to hand over to Bernhard, and the car rejoined the race in fourth . Out front was then the #19 of Hulkenbur,g which had spend the few hours prior gradually moving up the order. The Force India F1 driver continued at the top of the timing sheets as the runners began to edge ever closer to the halfway mark, but he had Rast nipping at his heels.

After dealing with overheating brake discs, all three Nissans emerged from their garages to continue running for the night portion of the race.

LMP2

After nearly half an hour under the safety car, racing resumed at 10:05pm, but race control maintained a slow zone through Mulsanne Corner while remedial work was completed on the barriers. Elsewhere, there was no restriction on pace, and there was a moment’s embarrassment for Maris as he spun the #35 Oak Ligier through the Ford chicane.

In other respects, traffic in and out of the pitlane was fairly routine in LMP2. Areas of interest included the relative positions between the Murphy Prototypes #48 and the cars either side, with Berthon 44 seconds behind Rusinov, but enjoying nmore than two minutes over Webb in the #43, who had just pitted for fuel.

We were given explanations for some of the issues affecting P2 runners, the #30 ESM Ligier suffered an oil tank failure, requiring a fairly straightforward replacement of the tank, while the #37 SMP had suffered an exhaust failure, which had burned the associated bodywork, and both elements had to be replaced.

At 11:20pm the #34 pitted from seventh and slipped back to ninth, and when Rusinov stopped from third, he allowed Berthon back through again. These two were see-sawing either side of their pitstops and seemed well matched on pace.

On the half-hour came news of a stop-go penalty for the P2 leader, #47, for an unspecified pitstop infringement. KCMG enjoyed a lead of nearly two minutes at the time, but it was nearly quarter of an hour before Bradley brought the car through to fulfil the obligation. In the meantime, several others completed routine pitstops (Berthon from fourth at 23:39, Turvey from seventh, slipping to eighth at 11:40pm, and Gommendy from second at 11:43pm). Kane’s pitstop in the Strakka Dome cost the #42 two places, as both Turvey and Estre (#34) moved ahead.

After completing his penalty, #47 lead had been cut to 1m20s, but there was still a pitstop to make. Berthon had moved to within 26 seconds of Rusinov, but the lead over Webb grew to over a minute when the latter pitted at 11:51pm.

The class positions at the end of the hour were: #47, #46, #26, #48, #43, #28, #38, #34, #42, #27, #31. The only change in those 60 minutes had been a swap between the #38 and #34.

GTE Pro & Am

With the safety car period having neutralised the field, it was all to go for again at the front of GTE Pro, Taylor’s efforts having been negated. At the restart, Bell jumped quickly on to the tail of the Corvette and got stuck in, Taylor responding. Richie Stanaway was re-instated in the third-place #99 Aston Martin, his pace now required to make up its 20-second deficit to the fight at the front.

The #91 Porsche was in a space of its own in fourth. Bergmeister had run the car steadily until pitting to change its brake discs, which lost it time. With over 15 hours left to run though, the following event would put the works Porsche back into the top three.

Bell suddenly turned his Aston sharply to the left just as he was committing to Mulsanne Corner. He clearly had a problem and quick thinking had avoided the car stopping in the middle of the right hander in a place of danger. The car sat in the darkness of the Mulsanne run-off, going nowhere.

This lost the dynamic of the leading positions in GTE Pro, but nevertheless opened the race to new possibilities. The Corvette’s lead had taken a GT car onto Page 1 of the timing screens for the first time. The #64 car was now 22nd in the overall standings with a comfortable gap of 1:13s back to Stanaway’s #99 Aston Martin, though this would reduce as the car took a routine stop. Gavin jumped aboard and resumed with a lead of 13 seconds pending the #91 Porsche’s next stop. Lietz was now aboard the recovering Porsche and was sensing his opportunity, posting some of the car’s best sector times.

The #51 AF Corse Ferrari was one to watch though: with Bruni now aboard, the car had overcome its earlier difficulties and was lapping hard in the 3:58s. Though nearly a lap behind the leader, the car’s potential was still considerable.

In Am, the #50 Larbre Competition Corvette’s troubled day was over, out with gearbox failure. Lamy’s #98 Aston still held firm at the front, over a minute ahead of Collard’s #83 AF Corse Ferrari , this making slow inroads but nothing that would worry the leader at this stage.

Bertolini rounded off the top three in the #72 SMP Ferrari 458, the three top places being handled by the Pro drivers of each car. The rest of the Am field was starting to spread out behind.