SUMMARY: Incidents for two GTE Am runners brought out the safety car towards the end of Hour 9 of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours.
LMP1: Trouble for third-place Porsche
Just when it seemed that Toyota had things under control, the #2 Porsche battled back after the second safety car of the race. It was a dramatic couple of hours for the headline class, with the #7 and #8 Audis having issues and the #1 Porsche in the garage for extended time also.
After the eighth stops, Toyota had a true lead of 11 seconds, with Stephane Sarrazin on a tear to hand the Japanese team the lead in the fading light. Both Sarrazin and Bernhard traded lap times, with the gap staying around 10 seconds for the opening laps of hour eight.
With the sun setting, the #8 Audi had slipped to a very distant fifth, making it a true fight between the two Toyotas and two Porsches for the lead and consequently the win.
After the ninth stops, the two Porsches in second and third, were nose-to-tail, with Neel Jani lapping a second quicker than Bernhard each lap. After a very quiet showing in the opening hours, it appeared that the #2 was on a charge for the night stint.
On the 120th lap, Jani made the move and immediately began to drive off into the distance, leaving Bernhard in third.
Less than a lap after the move was made, the #7 Audi, already delayed, was pushed back in the garage once again. After climbing to seventh spot, it was another blow to Leena Gade’s (the car’s chief engineer) final challenge with the team at Le Mans. The mechanics began to work on the rear once again. It wasn’t an extended stop though, and it rejoined after five minutes still in seventh spot overall.
The drama for the German marque didn’t finish there though, as the #8 Audi was pushed back in the garage with just over 16 hours remaining. Mechanics worked frantically all over the car, the front, the rear, the sides and in the cockpit. It continued to look like it was not Audi’s year. In the end the trip was short, and the car was out after three and a half minutes, two laps off the lead.
In the short periods of time when the leading trio were in sync, there was under 20 seconds between them after 128 laps. Sarrazin, Jani and Bernhard were all lapping quickly as the temperature dropped.
Further drama before midnight, but this time was in the Porsche camp, as the #1 Porsche was pushed into the garage from third place with an unspecified mechanical issue. After leading so long, it was heartbreak for Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley.
With the #1 still in the garage, the #7 came into the garage yet again, with another minor technical issue for the delayed R18. The nose section on the car was replaced.
So with 15 and a half hours remaining, it was the #6 Toyota ahead of the #2 Porsche and the #5. The #13 Rebellion all the while, climbing the order while the other cars faltered, sitting in the top five.
After the safety car for the stranded Ferraris, with just over 15 hours remaining the #6 Toyota pitted for the 10th time and came out just in front of the #2 Porsche with mike Conway aboard. The pair banged doors down the Mulsanne Straight, and dived up the inside at the Forza Chicane. Porsche once again led the race after 138 laps, it did however, have just one bullet left, the #1 still undergoing repairs.
LMP2: Thiriet Tops
10pm marked the arrival of the eighth hour. Richelmi completed a ninth pitstop for the #36 Signatech Alpine, and such was his advantage over the chasing Pierre Thiriet in the #46 that he managed to get out again still holding first in P2. Matsuda was on a charge again in third, emerging from his pitstop narrowly in third, ahead of Simon Dolan.
At just before twenty-past the hour, the complexion of the LMP2 leading chase changed dramatically, when Tsugio Matsuda coasted the #47 KCMG over to a stuttering halt at the side of the track on the run down towards Mulsanne Corner. With no lights showing, it had all the appearances of a power failure, and the fact that the marshals were then seen pushing the car to safety suggested it might be a while before we knew the cause, or outcome.
The net result was to drop the #47 out of contention. Richelmi, having managed to get back out ahead of Thiriet and still have that pitstop in hand, lead P2 by 35 seconds. Third-place was Rusinov in the G-Drive coupé, a full two minutes clear of Dolan in the open-topped sister car. Nick Leventis, perhaps with memories of that LMP2 win in 2010 tickling at the back of his mind, was holding a strong fifth in class, 12th overall.
Just after eleven, and Fabien Barthez in the #23 Ligier has been shown the yellow card, and penalised with a two minute stop-go for speeding through the slow zone. The former footballer had been in an intense battle for 12th position in the class.
Ten minutes after that notification, the next round of routine pitstops began once again. Pierre Thiriet, pitting from the lead, then set up the interesting prospect of a dice for first place, since he rejoined just two seconds ahead of Nicolas Lapierre in the #36 Signatech Alpine. That aside, the rest of the LMP2 field was fairly evenly spaced, with the only other cars within spitting distance being the #35 Baxi DC Alpine and the #27 SMP Racing BRO1.
Within a lap, the leader’s advantage had been slashed to just three-tenths of a second. Inevitably, the exchange comes on the next lap, and we had another change of leader in LMP2, albeit briefly. Lighter on fuel, it was a last-lap thrash for the Signatech Alpine, which was back down the pitlane at twenty-three past eleven for an eleventh refuel.
Just before half-past the race entered its first safety car period since the start, thanks to two incidents. The first had Dalla Lana in the gravel at the entrance of the Porsche Curves with the #98 AMR V8 Vantage, having reputedly clipped a barrier on the way in, and secondly, and almost simultaneously, François Perrodo diving in the gravel at Mulsanne Corner with the #83 AF Corse Ferrari.
The #44 was the first to get back to the pits, however, displaying evidence of fairly heavy rear-end damage, and was pulled into the garage for repairs. The safety car period then ran on for another twenty minutes, and saw the race through to just before midnight.
GTE: Risi hangs on amid the Fords; Am wide open
As night began to fall at Le Mans, the lap times predictably began to tumble, with Sam Bird in the #71 Ferrari and Oliver Gavin in the #64 Corvette both setting their cars’ best times yet just after 10pm. A slow zone for a stranded LMP2 temporarily put paid to further improvements, but third-place man Fisichella was just about keeping the Risi Ferrari in touch with the two leading Fords ahead.
Things were getting more interesting in GTE Am, with the top three covered by just 10 seconds. Pedro Lamy took the #98 Aston to the lead of the class shortly after 10:30pm, passing Pat Long in the #88 Abu Dhabi Porsche. A strong and consistent run from Scuderia Corsa thus far was being rewarded with third at present for Jeff Segal, while Pierre Ragues had the Larbre Corvette in fourth before a pit stop put it behind the #55 Ferrari, just handed over to Duncan Cameron after a Matt Griffin double stint.
A driver-change stop for the #69 Ford (Westbrook taking over from Dixon) was enough for Fisichella (who stayed aboard the Risi Ferrari at its corresponding stop) to move into second in GTE Pro at around the eight-hour mark, ahead of Pla in the #66 and Westbrook.
Although Lamy had taken the lead in GTE Am, Long didn’t let off the pressure and Segal stayed right in touch in the #62. After a cycle of routine stops, the Abu Dhabi Porsche was back in front (still with Long at the wheel), ahead of the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari (handed to Sweedler) and the Aston (now driven by Dalla Lana). The latter immediately looked like a threat to Sweedler’s second place, but pro driver Long began to eke out a gap in first over the two gents.
Unfortunately for the #98 car, Dalla Lana almost immediately hit the barrier on the way into the Porsche Curves, spun across the track and beached the car facing oncoming traffic. Shortly after, Francois Perrodo also had an off, in this case at Mulsanne where he speared straight ahead instead of turning sharp right.
The two stranded GTE Am cars were enough to prompt race control to deploy the three safety cars for the first time since the soggy start, although with the gaps at the front still quite narrow in both GTE Pro and Am, it didn’t change the complexion of the race drastically.
Pitting under the SC were Perrodo (who managed to get the car back and handed to Collard) and Sam Bird in the #71 Ferrari (which was pulled back into the garage and immediately set to work on by mechanics, before Davide Rigon got in). Duncan Cameron also brought the #55 in, but stayed aboard.
Getting their stops in just before the safety car came in were the #50 Corvette (from fifth in Am with Yamagishi on board), the #78 KCMG Porsche (with Henzler at the wheel) and the #82 Risi Ferrari (now back in the hands of Toni Vilander).