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Le Mans 24 Hours: Hour 21 Report, Close GT Action

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LMP1

Further niggles for the Audis consolidated Porsche’s lead after 343 laps at La Sarthe.

As the hour began a scary moment occurred involving the #17 Porsche. In avoidance of a slower AF Corse Ferrari, Bernhard was forced to run to the outside and off onto the huge gravel trap on the outside of the run up to the Dunlop Bridge. Bernhard powered through the litter and managed to add style points upon rejoining the track, hopping over the curbs sideways. There was no visible damage or reason for concern however.

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The track was also declared wet for a short time, with rain at various points across the surface. Nobody gambled on tyres as it wasn’t heavy enough, but it did make it that little bit harder.

The leading Porsche had Earl Bamber at the controls, with a lead of about a lap over the rest of the field, but Bernhard was pushing the sister car, and throughout the hour managed to reduce the gap a little.

Rebellion sadly hit more trouble, the #13 being pushed into the garage for further repairs. Despite multiple issues and an accident early in the race the new car with its new engine is still going, but now outside the top 20. It’s not the top-10 run the team had hoped for all week though.

The #9 Audi was pushed back into the garage at 11:30, the sight of the mechanics furiously tending to the car seemed to mark the end the third R18’s challenge. Out on track the #7 Audi un-lapped itself by getting past the #17 Porsche on track to put it just two laps off the lead and a single lap off second.

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Audi’s mechanics managed to get the #9 out after just two minutes, but it seemed that the car wasn’t 100% healthy. Bonanomi driving the car then went straight on at the second Mulsanne Chicane on his out-lap in the car.

It seemed that Audi were not going to back down after the drama , as Andre Lotterer responded to the #9’s troubles by setting the fastest lap of the race, and breaking the all-time lap record with a 3:17.476 on lap 337. The team are clearly not preserving the #7, it’s going for broke with three hours remaining.

At the end of the hour, the #9 made a trip to the garage again for further repairs. The #19 of Bamber was leading with the #17 a lap back in second. Lotterer’s #7 rounded out the top three, with the #8 Audi and #18 Porsche (promoted after the #9s troubles) sitting fourth and fifth.

LMP2

With Murphy back up and running again, and no issues for the remaining front-runners, the race in LMP2 settled back down again into a steadier rhythm. The challenge now was to spot the nuances of how the various gaps were oscillating between those with a challenge to make. Lapierre was consistently setting yet faster laps for the #47 KCMG, but Evans was faster still in the #38 Jota, and looked likely to catch, and perhaps pass, Rusinov in the G-Drive without the aid of a p[itstop. It was all a matter of time.

Early into the 20th hour the #27 SMP BR01 suffered a puncture, and the deflated carcass steadily worked its way off the rim until it sped free, rolling to a flobbery halt in the middle of the track. Tyre failures have been a common occurrence for the team, with the #37 sustaining a similar failure a few hours ago.

The screens announced that there were slippery surfaces in zones 7 and 11, and a slow-zone was introduced through 27, 28 and 29, the run between Arnage and Corvette Curve, the start of the Porsche Curves.

A further unscheduled pitstop came for the #48 Murphy Oreca at 11:16. The team worked around the front panels of the car, but the #48 remained on the apron and wasn’t taken back into the garage, and rejoined after a five minute delay.

Approaching the half hour and it was worth noting that the gaps between several of the front runners had indeed changed. Lapierre’s lead looked unassailable, and the #47 was a full two minutes clear of Rusinov in second, but the margin between the Russian’s rear wing and the chasing Mitch Evans in Jota’s #38 Gibson was down to 30 seconds, and diminishing by a rate of at least one second, and sometimes five, with every lap.

When Estre (#34) and Yacaman (#28) both pitted at 11:28, the gap between them was just 12 seconds, but a quicker pitstop by the Oak crew stretched that to 30-odd by the time the two cars rejoined.

A second pitstop infringement for the #35 Oak was confirmed at half past, this time for a premature engine restart. The penalty on this occasion was another stop-go.

Just moments after the half hour the #26 G-Drive Ligier came down the pit entry for fuel, and Mitch Evans negotiated the Ford Chicane to move smoothly through into second … for just a single lap. Next time around it was the Jota’s turn to make the pitstop, but it worked out well for the Gibson squad, and when the #38 returned to the track, Evans had a clear view of the orange and black #26, just seven seconds ahead of him, but Sam Bird was now the pilot, and Sam Bird is quick. Just the length of the pit straight separated them as they started their 306th lap.

Adding spice to the mix, the #28 was awarded a 45 second stop-go penalty for speeding in the pitlane, and while this wouldn’t be enough to allow Nathanaël Berthon to close down in the #48, it would make modest inroads.

11:45 and Sam Bird was proving his worth, and the team’s decision to place him back in the Ligier, as he set a new fastest lap for the #26 of 3:37.884, and with it easing out a couple of seconds on Mitch Evans. This challenge looked as though it could run and run …

There were issues, again, for the #30 ESM Ligier, with Scott Sharp running wide onto the gravel at Corvette Curve, and then emerging slowly at the entrance to the Porsche Curves. At 11:50 Yacaman came in to fulfil his stop-go penalty in the #28. He had been 45 seconds behind Estre, and that would change, but he’d also had almost six laps on Murphy, and most of that remained unaffected.

A few laps further on in the race and Sam Bird and Mitch Evans were trading times lap by lap. There wasn’t much to choose between them, and while the gap did extend to 10 seconds at one point, it was clear that the two were well matched. Traffic could be the deciding factor, as nearly all the leading P2 pack was setting new fastest sector times for their respective cars. Lapierre rounded off the hour with a new fastest lap for the #47, a 3:36.836, and Yacaman posted two consecutive improvements for the #28 G-Drive, peaking with a 3:38.109.

LMP2 Class order at the end of the hour, unchanged since Hour 20: #47, #26, #38, #34, #28, #48, #27, #31, #45, #35, #29

GTE Pro & GTE Am

With the declaration of a wet track (though from the position of your DSC team this was hard to fathom), it was change at the front again as Bruni stayed aboard the #51 AF Corse GTE Pro car to gain the lead and establish a gap. The Corvette’s simultaneous stop had included a driver change, Jordan Taylor now aboard, hence the deficit. Third place had gone away from Porsche, the car in its garage for front end work after looking good for the rest of the race, this followed by a further stop where its left rear wheel was particularly recalcitrant, losing the car even more time. Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari assumed third position, though two laps back from the leading pair.

Viktor Shaytar was breathing a sigh of relief having re-established his Ferrari’s second place in GTE-Am. Townsend Bell was now pedalling the chasing #62 Ferrari a lap behind, setting the car’s best lap of 3:57.299 as he responded to Pat Long’s #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche, which was on a typical charge now that the Porsche factory driver was sensing third place could be theirs. Long took the place in an aggressive move in the Porsche curves as the hour closed, though Bell wasn’t about to give up, pressuring Long all the way down the Mulsanne and looking unlikely to take things lying down. The pair were nose to tail, Long just about holding off the pressure in a fantastic, clean fight.

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Jeroen Bleekemolen was explaining the slow demise of the SRT Viper, saying the car had lost first and second gear. The team were not giving up though, the intent to nurse the car through to take the finish.

The eighth placed Am, #86 Team AAI Porsche, had a spin at Arnage. It was a reminder that although running their own distant race the plucky team still had had both its cars running, and like several other GTE Am entries had made it through the night despite a multitude of challenges only this race can present.

Standings:

GTE Pro:
#51 AF Ferrari: Bruni; 291 Laps
#64 Corvette: Taylor;  – 21s
#71 Ferrari: Calado; – 2 laps

GTE Am:
#98 Aston: Lamy ; 289 Laps
#72 SMP Ferrari: Bertolini; – 2 laps
#77 Porsche: Long; -3 laps

SK / MP / ML