Summary: It’s day break at the 84th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, and Porsche and Toyota are still going at it hammer and tongs at the head of the field.
LMP1: 13 Rebellion retires
Three o’clock, and into the second half of the race. Evidently spurred on by his slow return to the pitlane, Lotterer promptly set a new fastest first sector for the #7 Audi. Whatever the issue, it wasn’t affecting the R18 any longer!
That flurry aside, the race had entered a somewhat processional phase. With first and second still on the same lap, there remained the tantalising prospect of a race for the lead, but it would be a long time coming. Forty seconds or more separated the #2 Porsche from the leading #6 Toyota, and while pitstops came and went, the order didn’t change.
Having moved closer to the lead, the #2 Porsche dropped back again when Dumas pitted for fuel and a driver change to Marc Lieb. The 919 resumed racing in second, 36 seconds clear of Davidson in third. Casual observation of the ensuing half hour or more would reveal little change, but closer examination, particularly of the gap between Lieb and the leading Toyota of Kobayashi, revealed that the #2 Porsche was making steady inroads into the leader’s advantage.
It took a long time, and by four o’clock it had only narrowed by ten seconds or so, but come quarter-past four, the declining difference was starting to become more apparent. It stood at a mere 18 seconds, and then, at 04:20, Kobayashi headed for the pitlane. As the Toyota sidestepped down the pitlane entrance, Lieb accelerated across the line to take the lead.
What had looked like a less than promising cause a couple of hours previously was now very real once again. It was a fuel-only stop for Kobayashi, but that was enough to give the lead to Lieb … but for only a single lap. Coming round to complete the 210th lap of the race, Lieb steered the 919 into the pits for fuel. It would take a while for the timing screens to catch up with the action, but once they did, the gap between the two was 12 seconds, in favour of the German. Kobayashi’s pitstop had been 20 seconds longer than Lieb’s, and it made all the difference.
Elsewhere, there were developments for Rebellion. Just after the half hour, the #13 R-One was reported as stopped by the entrance to the second Mulsanne chicane. The car had been running strongly in overall 6th and Tuscher had even been dicing with Lotterer for 5th, but with the car now stationary, the fight appeared to be over.
A fresh ‘slow zone’ was introduced just as Oliver Jarvis brought the #8 Audi into the pitlane from 4th for fuel and tyres, but no driver change. Any affect was nullified, though, by Lotterer’s pitting from fifth, effectively reinstating the status quo. This was much the story of these middle-of-the-night hours.
At 04:43 Lieb was back in with a slow puncture. The car was fuelled and fresh tyres fitted, and he was swiftly back out on track again. But it was more than enough to let Kobayashi back through into the lead, and Davidson followed him. Despite the Porsche’s turn of speed, Toyota’s better fuel economy was giving the two TS050s the edge in what was becoming a much tighter battle for the lead. What’s more, the further through the night we went, the more the strategy was starting to pay dividends.
The duel now came down to a straight fight between Kobayashi and Davidson. The gap between the two had been on the wane for some time, but now that Lieb was out of the equation, Davidson was clearly intent on catching his team-mate. The determined Briton was closing on the Japanese to the tune of three seconds a lap …
Elsewhere, Treluyer was thanking his lucky stars, having caught the kerb on the exit of Ford and very nearly pitching the #7 Audi beyond the gravel and into the wall. He rejoined the track somewhat tentatively, but was soon back up to speed again.
Davidson moved to within ten seconds of Kobayashi before being called in for a pitstop at just after five, which not only allowed Kobayashi breathing space, but enabled Lieb to move through into second. Then, at just gone ten-past five, the leading Toyota pitted, and Lieb was back through and leading. Not only that, but the driver change that swapped Sarrazin for Kobayashi also added significantly to the length of the Toyota pitstop, allowing Lieb to ease out an advantage over Sarrazin and now Nakajima in the #5 – to more than 40 seconds. Different strategies aside, could this be a significant moment in the race? Time will tell …
News from Oliver Webb suggested that the #4 ByKolles CLM was “on its last legs”, with the engine a good 100 horsepower down on where it should be and the car struggling to maintain pace. Despite this, the grey-liveried P1 privateer was running 49th overall, Pierre Kaffer in the cockpit.
Just before half-five the leader was into the pitlane for a routine pitstop, fuel only, with Lieb swiftly back out again, but not quickly enough. Both Sarrazin and Nakajima were through in the blink of an eye, and the game of leap-frog was back in Toyota’s favour.
After 46 minutes in the garage, the #12 Rebellion rejoined the race, with Nelson Piquet Jnr in the cockpit. The sister car, #13, remained stationary out on track, and by this time had slipped from 6th position to 33rd, allowing the Murphy #48 to move up one further position in the road to recovery, 32nd overall.
The first hints of a lightening sky were starting to rise like a mist in the east as the race approached the end of its fifteenth hour. The TV cameras tend to make things appear lighter than they really are, but it was definitely clear to anyone not still abed that dawn was on the horizon. In LMP1, the contest for the lead was also starting to look a little brighter. Nakajima had closed to within 8 seconds of Sarrazin in the lead, but more significantly, Marc Lieb was a mere eleven seconds behind the #5 Toyota and closing. To his advantage, both the cars ahead of him had also still yet to make their scheduled pitstop.
Starting lap 235, the gap between Lieb and Nakajima had almost disappeared, just 2.5 seconds remained. The margin to Sarrazin, in the lead, stood at 15 seconds. Nakajima then pitted, making the pass so much simpler. When Sarrazin also pitted a few minutes later, it was an unopposed Marc Lieb who eased the #2 Porsche through to the front of the race, just as the clocks ticked over to six o’clock.
Further back, somewhere near the nether-regions of the P1 field, the #12 Rebellion R-One moved through ahead of the stranded #13 for the first time since the race began.
LMP2: Alpine still poised
The race for LMP2 swept through half distance with little to mark the occasion. Menezes continued to lead from Stevens, with Hirakawa third and can der Garde, now in the #38 G-Drive Gibson fourth. It was all a bit processional.
Twenty-five minutes into the thirteenth hour and the leader completed a faultless pitstop, regaining the track still some 20 seconds ahead of Stevens and the #26, but that balance was upset eight minutes later when the G-Drive Oreca also pitted for fuel. Hirakawa stepped up to the mark, taking second place as Stevens slipped to third. Watts, Tung, Mediani, Canal and Buret all then followed that lead, completing scheduled pitstops within a lap of Stevens. Shortly afterwards Stevens was back in again, this time to fulfil his time at a stop-go penalty.
With an all-enveloping darkness, the constant drone of racecars filled the air around the Circuit de la Sarthe, but not a great deal really happened. Regular pitstops came and went, teams added fuel and swapped old tyres for new, and weary drivers clambered out of cockpits to be replaced by those a little fresher. In the cooler air of the night, one or two posted quick sectors, but it wasn’t until the leader pitted at ten before five that anything more interesting looked to be in prospect.
Firstly, Lapierre took over from Menezes in the #36, and then the Alpine moved through on the stationary Rebellion LMP:1 to take 6th overall. The lead over Hirakawa in second had narrowed to 40 seconds, and that would be reduced further by the time the timing screens caught up with the true positions of the two cars.
Five o’clock came and went. Lapierre extended his lead to almost two minutes over Harikawa, while Rusinov in the #26 held third over the #38 G-Drive Gibson, van der Garde handing on to Simon Dolan early into the fifteenth hour. The P2 order stood at …
1 #36 Signatech Alpine A460 (Nicolas Lapierre)
2 #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca (Ryo Hirakawa)
3 #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 05 (Roman Rusinov)
4 #38 G-Drive Racing Gibson 015S (Simon Dolan)
5 #35 Baxi DC Alpine A460 (Nelson Panciatici)
For the next half hour that’s how things stood, each car comfortably separated from the next, and no direct confrontation evident anywhere within P2. The potential for that to change came with Lapierre’s next pitstop, for fuel only, and half-past five, but such had been the Signatech Alpine’s leading margin that the car was back out again and still leading the class, feathers unruffled.
The track continued to come to the drivers, with several finding the dawn run to their liking; Nelson Panciatici and Simon Dolan both setting new bests for their respective cars.
Yellow flags through Zone 20, the Mulsanne Corner, revealed Léo Roussel going straight on in the #28 Pegasus Racing Morgan Nissan and sinking into the gravel. He was duly extracted by the snatch vehicle and trundled on his way.
And that was how the hour ended, with the shutters coming down on the #13 Rebellion, confirming the first LMP1 retirement, the fifth overall.
GTE: Risi Ferrari and factory Fords still scrapping at dawn
With the gap at the front of the GTE Pro field coming down only very gradually (Briscoe’s Ford was 45 seconds adrift of Malucelli’s Ferrari just after the half-way mark), interest turned to developments further down the field.
We heard earlier how Aston Martin was very much planning to run its own race at its own pace, and the British cars were starting to come into their own. While Sorensen had already got the #95 to fourth in class, it was now the turn of Jonny Adam to get a move on: he got the #97 past the #64 Corvette on track early in Hour 13, but it was something of a false flag as a pitstop saw the American car back in front.
Yet while things were looking up for Aston, the works Porsche GT squad’s nightmare continued as the #92 joined the #91 on the list of confirmed retirements, the cause this time a broken front-right suspension pick-up. The semi-works #77 Dempsey-Proton full-season WEC entry (currently seventh and being driven by Le Mans debutant Phillip Eng) was now Stuttgart’s sole representative in the top GTE class.
Elsewhere, the fierce GTE Am lead battle still hadn’t let up: Townsend Bell in the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari not unexpectedly caught and passed Al-Qubaisi mid-way through the same hour. The Abu Dhabi driver had two Ferraris some distance behind: namely the Clearwater 458 (with Keita Sawa now at the wheel after a long stint from Rob Bell) and the AF Corse 458 (currently being driven by Rui Aguas).
Past the 13-hour mark, Fisichella was back aboard the #82 Ferrari and sitting about 30 seconds ahead of the chasing Ford. In GTE Am, Bell had pulled out a significant margin of nearly 90 seconds on Al-Qubaisi as the clock passed 4am.
Later on in the hour, the #69 Ford GT was pulled into the garage for what looked like a planned brake disc change. This saw an Aston Martin move into a potential podium position in the class for the first time all race, in the shape of the #95 now being driven by Darren Turner.
Pitstops towards the end of Hour 14 saw driver changes at the head of GTE Am: Jeff Segal now back aboard the leading #62 Ferrari and Pat Long taking over the #88 from Al-Qubaisi.
The stand-off at the front of GTE Pro continued, Bourdais chasing Fisichella the Ford GT some 31 seconds adrift. Both cars lapping in the 3:53’s, the Ferrari was clearly pushing on with the #68 trading tenths. Scott Dixon’s third placed #69 Ford was doing similar times as Darren Turner upped the pace of his Aston Martin to close the gap to 12 seconds while Dixon pitted for fuel, the #95 car owing a stop. Turner admitted their car was “the best of the rest” at this stage and that the Aston couldn’t match the pace at the front. Comfortable with their strategy, the car would hang in there and hope there was trouble for the leading three.
Jeff Segal’s lead in Am looked sturdy at the best part of a lap over Long’s Porsche, the Ferrari posting laps 3 to 4 seconds quicker than the Proton Racing car as the Ferrari applied bursts of pressure. Further back, Matt Griffin recorded the #55 Ferrari’s best lap of the race at 3:57.807. In sixth place, the Irishman was responding to decent times being set by Pierre Ragues’ Larbre Corvette just eight seconds behind. A further improvement for Griffin of 3:57.430 helped build the gap to over eleven seconds.
As the hour closed Fisichella pitted to hand over to Toni Vilander, the car taking a change of brakes.