Summary: Toyota and Porsche are involved in a dogfight at the front, with Samui Kobayashi and Stephane Sarrazin matching the #1 Porsche for pace. Thiriet, Ford and Proton headed their classes.
LMP1: Toyota keeping up the fight
The LMP1 race was still truly settled, except for a brief scare for the #1 Porsche. At the end of hour seven the #6 Toyota was back in the lead again, with the #1 second and the second Toyota third. Audi’s sole challenger was fading away.
With five hours run, Porsche continued to lead, but back at the tail end of the P1 field, the #13 Rebellion had a left-rear puncture, which cost it valuable time. It did still rejoin ahead of the entire P2 field though.
Kamui Kobayashi held the lead after Webber’s first stop, and all of a sudden the Japanese driver came alive, darting through traffic, and setting a 3:21.445, the fastest lap of the race.
The result of Kobayashi’s efforts, coupled with a quicker stop reduced the gap to just 13.7 seconds to Webber after his sixth stop. A very impressive stint by the ex-Sauber F1 driver, if a bit erratic at times, running four-wide, almost on the grass through traffic twice.
Taking over third spot was the #2 Porsche, pushing the #8 Audi off the podium. Marc Lieb driving the car, quickly began to pull away, and solidify its position.
As the 7th hour approached, the #1 Porsche of Timo Bernhard had a near miss running into a slow zone at the Porsche Curves on his inlay for the eighth stop. It didn’t cost him much time, but it did serve as a reminder that things could easily go wrong.
With Stephane Sarrazin driving the #6 Toyota, the pace in the car was still blistering, and the car finished the seventh hour in the lead, edging away from Bernhard in the chasing #1 Porsche, about to pit for the eighth time.
LMP2: Thiriet top P2 as light begins to fade
An eventful sixth and seventh hour for the P2 runners left the Thriet Oreca truly in control, with the #26 Alpine and #26 G-Drive Oreca in the mix.
When the sixth hour kicked off, there was a change of colour at the top of LMP2. Having for so long grown accustomed to seeing the #44 Manor Motorsport Oreca circulating with a healthy lead, a few minor indiscretions from Matt Rao had been sufficient to see the black-finned car slip out of contention, for the time being at least. By the time the cars had completed their next round of routine pitstops, the #44 had slumped to fifth in class. For a while Gustavo Menzies held the lead for Signatech Alpine, but had a pitstop in hand.
At twenty-past eight, Chris Cumming faced a challenge approaching the slow-zone at the entry to the Porsche Curves, where the #57 Corvette was stranded in the gravel, hitting the brakes a little too enthusiastically and sending the #31 ESM Ligier into a spin. That left him nose-on to the tyre wall, undamaged, but with hardly enough space to execute the three-point turn required to get back facing the right way. He eventually succeeded but sustained a puncture in the process, then passed the pit entry before this became apparent and had to complete a full lap on three wheels.
If Cummings was having to take it carefully, Matt Howson was pushing hard, setting several fastest sectors for the KCMG #47 as he gunned for Menzies, leading the class by 30 seconds, but typically three seconds slower than Howson … but both had yet to make their seventh pitstop.
That left Hirakawa, third in the #46, poised to regain the lead for the Thiriet by TDS Ligier when eventually they headed for the pitlane, which both cars did at just on the half-hour.
Worse still, for the #26, was an additional drive-through penalty, imposed on the #26 G-Drive Oreca coupé for, apparently, having the engine still running while the car was being refuelled.
The net effect of all this was that Hirakawa’s lead suddenly looked very comfortable, at a generous 48 seconds over Stéphane Richelmi in the #36 Signatech Alpine. Howson, meanwhile, had rejoined in third, fifteen seconds behind the Alpine, but the two were fairly equally matched.
A little further back, the car really on the move was the #42 Strakka Racing Gibson, with Danny Watts setting a succession of blue sectors for the black and white car.
With the race entering its seventh hour, Hirakawa continued to lead from Richelmi, (Thiriet by TDS from Signatech Alpine), with Matt Howson third (KCMG) and Roman Rusinov fourth aboard the #26 G-Drive Oreca.
Just after the hour, as the clock ticked over nine o’clock, Olympian Chris Hoy completed his first full stint in the cockpit of the #25 Algarve Pro Ligier, setting highly representative times and helping maintain the car’s position, 14th in class, but still in the leading LMP2 group.
A few heartbeats later and the #28 Pegasus Morgan was being hauled unceremoniously backwards out of the gravel trap at Mulsanne Corner, where the diminutive Inès Taittinger had slightly miscalculated her braking requirement into the tight right-hander.
Having done so much to haul the KCMG #47 up through the order, Matt Howson handed over driving duties to Tsugio Matsuda at around nine-twenty. The Japanese driver resumed in third, as Simon Dolan took over from van der Garde in the #38 G-Drive Gibson, holding fourth.
Meanwhile, Matt Rao had pitted the #44 from seventh in LMP2, but it wasn’t a routine stop. The car was swiftly trolleyed back into the garage. Rao had struck a bollard coming out of Mulsanne, and this had become wedged under the wheelarch, leading to a puncture. He also reported having lost engine performance, with oil and water temperatures rising. As a precaution they team was checking under the engine cover.
Just after the half-hour, Hirakawa brought the class leader down pit entrance for a routine stop, allowing Richelmi and the #36 Signatech Alpine into the lead. Thiriet took over the #46 and resumed in second, but with a pitstop in hand.
The thirty-minute run up to the hour proved to be fairly uneventful. Richelmi held the lead, still due an additional pitstop over Pierre Thiriet, nearly forty seconds behind in second, until the final seconds of the seventh hour, pitting a minute or so before ten to allow the #46 Oreca through into the lead. Third was Matsuda in the #47, but setting enough blue sectors for the KCMH Oreca to suggest that he too was running low on fuel, and he duly entered the pitlane dot on the hour, followed by Rusinov. We wouldn’t know exactly how this was going to pan out until the next hour was well under way …
GTE: Ford and Porsche continue Pro and Am domination
With four hours gone, Ford were 1-2-3 in GTE Pro. Ominously, the American cars seemed to have broken the pace of anything that had tried to get in their way. Their strategy thus far had gauged the situation and applied pressure accordingly. The lead #68 car, still in the hands of Joey Hand, held a comfortable 20-second lead over the Mucke-driven #66 car, which passed the #69 Ford as Briscoe changed for Dixon in the pit. However the #82 Risi Ferrari decided the fight was still very much on. With Matteo Malucelli aboard, the 488 stole back third place to spoil the Ford symmetry, soon putting six seconds between itself and fourth place.
Aston Martin’s progress had been fairly low-key, Marco Sorensen putting in solid laps in the #95 Vantage in fifth and still in touch with the pace ahead of him. Over a minute behind, Andrea Bertolini had slowly hauled the #71 Ferrari back into play, with Jordan Taylor’s #64 Corvette just seven seconds adrift of it for seventh. The first of the Porsches was #77 Dempsey-Proton car, eighth place in GTE Pro currently held by Phillipp Eng.
Around the same time, the KCMG Porsche was back in front of the GTE Am field, Joel Camathias staying aboard during the next stops while the erstwhile leader Heinemeier-Hansson had stopped and handed over to Khaled Al-Qubaisi. The lead gap was over 13 seconds until Camathias pulled in and handed over to Christian Reid, the Porsches switching places again.
Mattias Lauda was still third in this class, 42 seconds behind, while the #62 Ferrari’s progress continued; Jeff Segal was now aboard the car, a place gained over the #50 Larbre Corvette. There was less good news for Mark Patterson: his first stint aboard the Team AAI Corvette was marred by a mistake on the exit of the Porsche Curves – the notoriously treacherous Virage Karting gravel claiming yet another victim and causing a slow zone that would soon catch out the #31 LMP2 car. Patterson was able to recover his car to the pits, however.
At 15 minutes into the sixth hour of the race, it was deja vu for the #82 Risi Ferrari, this time with Malucelli on board, as it was again passed by a Ford for the lead on track. This time it was local man Sebastien Bourdais taking the pole-sitting #68 car to the front, Bourdais’ fellow four-time US open-wheel champion Scott Dixon was keeping a watching brief in third in the #69, while Billy Johnson was running fourth during his first stint in the sister #66 car.
Patterson’s dramas in the #57 Corvette continued at around 9:30pm, half-way through hour six, when the car ended up in the gravel on the way out of the Porsche Curves. At this point, the seemingly invevitable had happened, with Dixon moving the #69 Ford into second past Malucelli in the Risi Ferrari.
There were further incidents for Pro and Am runners as the hour wound down: the out-of-contention #67 Ford went straight on at Mulsanne and nosed the barrier, seeingly due to a technical issue. Elsewhere, Gary Hirsch found the gravel after a wild moment on the way out of the Porsche Curves in the Beechdean Aston.
Another cycle of pitstops saw Fisichella back aboard the Risi Ferrari, while the three Fords in the top four kept Bourdais, Dixon and Johnson at the wheel respectively. Turner meanwhile was running fourth in the #95 Aston, now reportedly happier with the car after running on less-than-ideal tyre pressures earlier. In GTE Am, the Abu Dhabi Porsche remained in control, but the #98 Aston piloted by Pedro Lamy now sat second as the #78 Porsche dropped down the order in the hands of Christian Ried.