Summary: Mark Webber led for Porsche as evening fell over La Sarthe, while in GTE, it was now a Ford 1-2 as the Risi Ferrari’s challenge faded.
LMP1: Webber takes the reigns
The P1 race started to settle down, but the top five were still very much on the lead lap. Mark Webber took over from Brendon Hartley, and began to pull away from the #6 Toyota in second.
Hour four began with the top three within 30 seconds of each other, it was clear that you could still make a case for all three P1 factory teams to win this one. Brendon Hartley was beginning to ease away, with a series of 3:23 and 3:24 laps, which both Conway and Duval behind couldn’t match, but through the traffic it was still close nonetheless.
20 minutes into hour 4, Conway responded to Hartley’s flyers, setting the fastest lap of the race in the #6 Toyota, a 3:22.155, to close in on the Kiwi once again.
The battle for third then ensued with Buemi catching and passing Duval on lap 49, just before the R18 dived in for its fourth stop.
After both Toyotas had pitted once again, Porsche claimed its lead back, with Mark Webber having taken over from Hartley who had impressed in his triple stint. Kamui Kobayashi was in the #6 Toyota, with Oliver Jarvis third in the #8 Audi.
Anthony Davidson was sitting fourth in the #5 after the fourth stops, having taken over from Buemi, but had to come back in after just one lap for an unscheduled fifth stop to change the left-rear tyre. It cost the car 57 seconds and fourth place; the team later reported that a vibration issue was to blame.
As the fifth hour began to take shape, the P1 field began to settle into a rhythm, and the #1 Porsche and #6 Toyota continued to swap positions for the lead through the stops, the Toyota still able to run multiple laps more per stint than the Porsche on fuel.
Meanwhile, the #7 Audi had gradually climbed the order after its turbo change, inside the top 20 with 19 and a half hours remaining in the race.
When the cars were in sync for the run into the fifth hour, Mark Webber’s lead had grown to 30 seconds, but Kobayashi was still able to lap quicker than the Aussie on occasion. The third place #8 Audi of Jarvis was also still not too far back either; 50 seconds off the lead, 22 off second.
Webber’s pace though continued to impress though, extending the lead as the fifth hour concluded, headlined by a 3:21.816, the fastest lap of the race to that point.
Five minutes after six and the next round of regular pitstops began; Mehri one of the first to make the visit for fuel. Beche followed him, allowing Bradley to inherit the lead, and Lapierre moved through into second. Kane, Dennis and Pizzitola (now in the #25) also pitted.
True to form, the pitstop stagger unravelled within minutes, and Mehri duly returned to the top of the P2 leaderboard. We learned that the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca had experienced electrical problems while on track with Jeroen Bleekemolen; the engine cutting out at least twice. He pitted for the crew to attend to the issue, and handed over to Marc Goossens. The Belgian returned to the track at twelve minutes past six after the car had lost roughly 19 minutes in the pits. Gonzalez, taking over driving duties in the #43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier returned to the track some time later, at 18:25.
By that time the LMP2 race had adopted a more structured appearance, with the #44 Manor Motorsport Oreca, still being pushed hard by Roberto Mehri, a full 50 seconds clear of a much tighter battle between Matthias Beche (#46 Thiriet by TDS, above) and Richard Bradley (#47 KCMG), with only a second separating them.
After little to report, a couple of brief incidents, including a straight-liner for the #34 Race Performance Oreca at the Indianapolis left-hander, Leutwiler leaving a neat pair of parallel black streaks across the run-off as he slithered to a halt just inches from the tyrewall. Meanwhile, the #41 Greaves Motorsport Ligier, otherwise enjoying a fairly untroubled race, was chastised for not observing track limits, Memo Rojas at the wheel.
At quarter before seven and another spate of pitstops began, with Mehri pitting the #44 to hand on to Matthew Rao. The Spaniard had completed an impressive three and a half hours plus in the Manor Oreca, and done much to establish a strong position. Beche also completed his equally lengthy opening stint, handing on to Ryo Hirakawa, and Will Stevens taking over the G-Drive coupé from Rast.
At the end of the hour the order in LMP2 stood at: #44 Manor Motorsport leading generously from the #46 Thiriet by TDS Oreca and the #36 Signatech Alpine third. Fourth place had the #26 G-Drive coupé ahead of the KCMG Oreca 05 #47. Sixth was the #31 ESM Ligier from the #42 Strakka Racing Gibson and the #38 G-Drive Gibson. The #35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine held eighth.
Just as we moved through into the fourth hour, Tracy Krohn caught the kerbs on the apex of the first chicane along the Mulsanne, and the green Ligier skipped out at the rear and slithered across the track and backwards into the gravel. He’d just been passed by Matt Howson in the KCMG, and both were in turn passing a GT Ferrari when the incident occurred.
Meanwhile, Marc Goossens returned the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca to the track, after another enforced pit visit prompted by water getting into the electrics earlier in the race. One of the challenges, perhaps, of running an open-topped prototype in torrential rain.
There was a modest excursion for the Pegasus Morgan, just before the half-hour, but Rémy Striebig managed to regain the track, although pitted at the end of the lap for a check-up and minor repairs. Reports that the Murphy Prototypes Oreca encountered more electrical issues, and replaced the “dashboard”. This evidently did the trick, as Marc Goossens then set fastest laps for the #48, and was suddenly among the quickest in the class.
Another round of routine pitstops among the leaders for fuel and tyres. Once all these had been completed, Matthew Rao emerged in the lead once more, but with his advantage slashed to just half a second over Ryo Hirakawa in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Oreca, himself a mere second clear of Will Stevens in the #26, perhaps one of the tightest battles in the race at the time, but the TV editor failed to notice. Stevens then pitted the G-Drive Oreca and the tension eased, until Matt Rao spun the #44 through the Dunlop Chicane at 19:50, allowing Hirakawa an unopposed move into the top slot.
As we moved up towards the end of the hour, Matt Howson finally got the better of Matt Rao, easing through to take third. The erstwhile leading Manor Motrorsport Oreca had slipped to fourth in fairly short order. Hirakawa maintained a ten second lead over Gustavo Menzies in the #36, second, and Howson was closing in from third. With Rao in fourth, fifth place fell to Will Stevens in the closed coupé G-Drive, from Giedo van der Garde in the open-topped sister car #38.
GTE: Ford To The Fore
As the #67 was seen being wheeled back out of its garage, the #66 and #68 Ford GTs pitted for driver changes as the hour commenced. This re-set the order at the front of the GTE Pro class: the #82 Risi Ferrari back ahead and obviously having the better stop; Ryan Briscoe now at the helm of the #69 Ford GT was seven seconds behind. Nick Tandy’s Porsche was still very much in touch for third just five seconds back.
The #68 Ford GT now had Joey Hand at the wheel, five seconds adrift of Tandy and posting laps in the 3:53’s now, in response to pressure from Earl Bamber in the other Pro Porsche behind him in fifth. Hand would press on hard to overhaul Tandy for third, the Fords well poised at this early stage of what had been typically breathtaking competition in this category. The #51 AF Corse car that had run so well with the leaders was still receiving attention in its pit and losing laps with only just over two hours of racing.
In the GTE Am class, David Heinemeier-Hansson was now steering the second-placed Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing Porsche, the #88 car having dropped back from Wolf Henzler on pace as well as through its stop. Henzler was now into a triple stint, as was Rob Bell; looking strong in third, the early stop for the Clearwater Racing Ferrari had positioned the distinctive chrome and orange car well before he opted to pit and hand the car to Mok Weng Sun. Equally notable, albeit towards the back of the Am class, Andrew Howard was into a marathon third stint aboard the #99 Aston Martin.
There had been an effort from the Aston Martin of Nicki Thiim to get up Stefan Mucke’s Ford in fifth, this fizzling out as the three ‘competitive’ Fords all set their fastest laps of the race on lap 46.
With Joey Hand having drafted by his team mate on the Mulsanne straight to switch the Fords’ positions it was as if the Ford race strategy had switched to hunting down Toni Vilander’s leading Ferrari rather than taking risks scrapping between themselves. The two Fords did indeed look somewhat predatory circulating nose to tail some thirteen seconds adrift of the Risi Competizione car. The #51 reappeared from its pit box after having spent 49 minutes there, Gianmaria Bruni now aboard.
Its sister #71 AF Corse Ferrari had been having some troublesome running though nothing too serious. At the end of Sam Bird’s first double stint his tyres were fairly shot, losing him time. Davide Rigon had rejoined and had trouble getting through traffic; the car was suffering a slight turbo boost problem.
The #91 Porsche pitted and was wheeled back into its garage, frantic attention at its right front corner as fluid was seen leaking onto the garage floor. This situation would trigger the race’s first potential retirement as Marc Miller lost the Weathertec-liveried #89 Am Porsche going into the Dunlop chicane.
The car deep in the gravel with rear end damage, it looked as if it had gone straight on under braking, spinning and thumping the tyre wall on the right hand side on entry. Just previously, the #91 Porsche had resumed but was seen dropping more fluid on the way into the Dunlop complex. It transpired that a stone had holed an oil cooler on the #91, the car back out and running 12th in class.
Back in Pro, a fierce battle was underway between Davide Rigon’s Ferrari and Tommy Milner’s #64 Corvette. The pair touched, allowing Marco Sorensen’s Aston Martin to claim the place from the Ferrari, then pressing through to take the ‘Vette. The order sixth to eighth: Sorensen, Milner, Rigon.
As the fourth hour closed, the Pro class still had Vilander’s Ferrari leading by eight seconds from the three chasing Fords of Briscoe and Hand. Their team-mate Stefan Mucke was riding shotgun in fourth some 30 seconds back, his nearest threat being from Jorg Bergmeister’s Porsche, some 42 seconds adrift.
Joel Camathias now had the leading KCMG Porsche (above) in hand in Am, Heinemeier Hansson 11 seconds adrift in the #88 Proton car. It wouldn’t take long though for the #98 Porsche to close right up.
Meanwhile, another superb fight was on at the front of GTE Pro. Vilander had Hand’s Ford alongside on the run down to Indianapolis, the Finn holding the racing line through the fast right hander and through Arnage. Vilander got enough power down on the run back to the pit straight to just peg back the #68 Ford GT, which now had team-mate Ryan Briscoe at its back in pursuit.
The pressure at the front persisted down the Mulsanne straight, the Ferrari holding off the Ford through the first chicane, but losing out to Hand as the pair accelerated away. Vilander was not giving up his lead easily, though, pushing back hard as the pair came back towards Indianapolis again. Two became three as the #69 Ford GT closed in, the 1-2-3 circulating together through the Forest Esses and down to Tertre Rouge. This was gritty stuff from Vilander, whose pace was visibly better than the LMP2s he was trying to lap while defending.
There was light contact with the Larbre Corvette into Arnage as the classic plain scarlet Ferrari sliced through traffic, more paint traded with the Formula Racing 458 as the three-car train exited the Porsche Curves, Briscoe sensing a chance and showing the Ford’s nose. The Ferrari stuck it out as this 1500bhp slugging match completed another round. Ultimately, though, the Ford had the grunt and the pass happened going out on to the Mulsanne straight. Not long after the #69 Ford would repeat the move, an absolute thriller, now concluded.
Heinemeier-Hansson was now in the lead of the Am class for Abu Dhabi Proton Racing, although Camathias was holding second place well for the KCMG car. Mattias Lauda found the gravel on the exit of the Porsche Curves (Virage Karting), but the #98 Aston kept its third place. The Larbre Corvette was also starting to figure, fourth place now as the race started to settle down a little. The #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari sat in a lonely fifth place, though its steady progress by its experienced crew was notable, Bill Sweedler now aboard.
Mike Wainwright had been running sixth in the Gulf Racing UK Porsche, but had stopped at the first Mulsanne chicane, allowing Aaron Scott’s #55 AF Corse Ferrari to take the place, followed by Weng Mok in the #61 Clearwater 458.