With the finish in sight, time was beginning to run out for Audi. The #7 sat third by the end of the 22nd hour but two laps off the #19’s lead suffering further issues. Despite Lotterer setting a 3:17 in the previous hour, he couldn’t sustain that sort of pace and make a proper attempt at gaining laps and therefore places.
Di Grassi set a 3:17.8 in what appeared to be a lot ditch effort to push the Porsches, but sitting fourth overall meant a lot would have to happen for the car to move up the order.
The #7 went back into the garage multiple times from third spot as we closed in on the final two hours of the race, costing the car another lap on the leader. The Porsche’s reliability had been the difference here as the #7 underwent various check-ups at the rear, taping up the bodywork and topping up the oil.
When the hour ended the #19 Porsche was three laps ahead of the leading Audi in third. Second spot was the #17 Porsche of Hartley who was one lap down. Fourth was the #8 Audi, and fifth was still the #18 Porsche after moving up during the previous hour.
The new hour began with yet more fast lappery from the LMP2 contenders; a 3:37.779 being a new best from Sam Bird for the #26 G-Drive Ligier.
The last pitstop for Yacaman was enforced, but at 12:08 he was back into the pitlane for a routine pitstop. These two visits had given Estre in the #34 a generous breathing space, and the gap between the two had stretched out to almost two minutes.
12:15, and routine pitstops for the class leading #47, and then for Sam Bird in the #26 G-Drive Ligier. Evans takes the Jota Gibson through to second in the class, but the true drama erupts when Lapierre loses the #47 through Indianapolis and ends up taking to the escape road, and stalling the #47 KCMG. The experienced Frenchman and Toyota works driver soon had the Nissan fired up, and with a brief cross-kerb wobble, got the Oreca back up to speed. Mitch Evans in the chasing Jota (with a pitstop still to make) narrowed the gap to the leader from almost a minute to just 35 seconds.
There’s no time for Mitch to make good the advantage, because 12:20 was his alarm call for a pitstop, and the #38 Gibson made a speedy visit to the Jota garage for fuel and driver change to Oliver Turvey. Sam Bird sped by along the pit straight, and Turvey emerged 36 seconds behind him.
The half hour provided an opportunity to check on gaps in LMp2. Lapierre, leading for KCMG with 317 laps completed, was 71 seconds clear of Sam Bird, second in the #26 G-Drive Ligier. The gap back to Oliver Turvey was another 36 seconds, but fairly stable. Kevin Estre held fourth for the #34 Oak Ligier, but was a full two laps adrift of Turvey, while Yacaman in the #28 Ligier was only – ‘only’? – 1 min 54 in arrears.
Two and a half hours of racing remained, however, and that’s long enough for an awful lot to happen.
12:40, and the #34 Ligier completed a routine pitstop, just as Nathanaël Berthon posts an improved best lap for the #48 Murphy Oreca of 3:38.715. He’s not quite able to match Lapierre’s last lap (3:38.706) but it’s still several seconds quicker than almost all the other contenders in LMP2.
We’ve noted several instances of the #40 Krohn Racing Ligier suffering unforced spins and misalignments through tight corners, and news reached us at 12:50 with an explanation. Apparently, the Judd-powered coupé has been suffering from traction control issues. At about the same time that we were told this the #28 and the #48 both made pitstops for fuel, but Yacaman and Berthon each remained aboard their respective cars.
Moments later and several more key players followed suit, with Sam Bird the first to pit from second (and allowing Oliver Turvey through to take the position), #35 and #29 (from tenth and eleventh in class respectively). Two minutes before one and the P2 leader Lapierre made his next routine pitstop for fuel, leaving it to Oliver Turvey to round off the hour with a slick refuel and rejoin.
The status quo was restored, and the LMP2 running order at the end of the hour was unchanged after another hour of racing: #47, #26, #38, #34, #28, #48, #27, #31, #45, #35, #29
GTE Pro & GTE Am
The main event in GTE was now on fire, Townsend Bell’s #62 GTE Am Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 was not backing down one inch – literally. Having got by Bell in a fine outbraking move, Pat Long was now straining every last horsepower out of his 911 to keep the Ferrari at bay. Lap followed lap as the two experienced Americans fought clean and hard at every turn. Bell was right up with Long on the straights, almost making contact with the rear of the Porsche on the flat out parts of the Mulsanne, extracting the maximum from the dead air under its wing. But the Dempsey-Proton Porsche seemed to be just able to pull away enough at the turns to keep the battle going.
Aside from anything that was happening with the prototypes, this was one of the best features of the race at this stage. Act One ended at the exit of Mulsanne Corner as Bell dragged alongside the Porsche, carrying greater speed under braking around the outside of Long in a bold move. Ultimately though, insufficient speed was scrubbed from the Ferrari, which pirouetted gracefully having lost traction as it tried to get the power down, the Dempsey Porsche having held the perfect line. Though the #62 car collected itself, Pat Long was away.
All settled down for a few laps until the power play re-engaged. Bell had got back in the groove and drew as close to the #77 Porsche as he had been previously as the pair swept through Tertre Rouge. No quarter given, but every respect paid, the second half of the stand-off was as close but unfortunately did not last. Long held position as he had before, until a Stop / Go penalty was handed out to the #62 Ferrari for an earlier pit lane speeding infringement. The best GTE Am battle of the race seemed reached its conclusion and Pat Long was eyeing the Dempsey car’s first Le Mans podium having come so close before.
This was a distraction to other events elsewhere. In GTE Pro the #91 Porsche Team Manthey’s difficulties were confirmed as an oil leakage in the gearbox.
More drama on track for the #95 Aston Martin: Christoffer Nygaard had been minding his own in fourth place, but was tagged hard on driver’s left on approach to the Ford Chicane. One of the ESM LMP2’s was in its own battle with one of the G-Drive cars and even though Nygaard appeared to leave room, the prototypes swept across to punt the Aston Martin off to the right of the track.
Nygaard was able to hold the car and had a very bumpy recovery across the whole extent of the pit entrance area and the chicane’s right hand gravel traps to keep the car in play.
Stop press : the lead #51 is in the pits, having slowed significantly and handing Oliver Gavin’s Corvette the lead.
#64 Corvette: Gavin; 309 Laps
#51 AF Ferrari: Vilander; 309 Laps (Pit)
#71 AF Ferrari: Calado ; -4 Laps
#98 Aston: Lamy ; 306 Laps
#72 SMP Ferrari: Bertolini; – 1 Lap
#77 Porsche: Long; -2 Laps
SK / MP / ML