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Le Mans: Toyota Pushing Porsche, Ford Pushing Ferrari With Five Hours To Run

Lead battles galore in LMP1 and GTE Pro

Summary: P1 settled down as the final six hours of racing got underway, but the fight in GTE Pro wouldn’t let up with Dirk Muller chasing down Matteo Mallucelli for the lead. It’s classic case of Ford vs Ferrari at La Sarthe!

LMP1: Toyota pressures Porsche

At the head of the field, the chase was on as the 18th hour began, with just three seconds separating leader Sebastien Buemi and the chasing pair of Mike Conway and Neel Jani. Romain Dumas, several laps down was also in the mix, but the Frenchman sensibly let the two Toyotas past instead of blocking the TS050s.

When Buemi and Conway were past the #1 Porsche, they were able to create a far healthier gap to Jani, who actually struggled to get past the delayed sister car.

After a further few laps, Buemi continued to run considerably faster than Conway and Jani, his lead then six seconds by lap 270.

Buemi’s lap times impressed further halfway through the 18th hour. He managed a series of 3:22s, the best being a 3:22.495, the car’s best during the race on lap 275. After spending much of the race with a pace advantage, the #2 Porsche couldn’t match him and keep up the fight at that stage.

After the next round of stops, and with six hours to go, the advantage continued to ease to the Toyota camp, with the #5 leading the #6 by 31 seconds, the third place #2 Porsche sitting 50 seconds back. But at the turn of the hour, Marc Lieb was beginning to pick up the pace, and reduced the gap to 47 seconds.

Down in fourth and fifth, the pair of Audis had continued to circulate metronomically, though laps down, for a long time without issues. It wouldn’t last however, as Marcel Fassler brought the #7 in and was pushed back into the garage, the mechanics working on the right-front corner of the car for a handful of minutes before sending it back out.

With the final quarter of the race very much in full swing, the gap between the top three continue to remain at around 30 seconds, with Toyota seemingly attempting to push the #2 Porsche to breaking point.

Toyota 1-2 with five hours to go.

LMP2: Strakka enters the fray

The eighteenth hour began with confirmation that the shutters had come down on the #46 Thiriet by TDS Oreca, making the LMP2 front-runner the ninth official retirement. Having looked set to rejoin in fairly short order, it can only be assumed that a serious underlying problem was revealed when Beche attempted to drive out of the pitlane.

Although not yet officially retired, the #35 looked set to join the list as well, and there had been no news from the G-Drive garage on the fate of the #38. Both were still showing as static in their respective garages.

For a change we had some good news at eight-fifteen, with a new fastest lap for Bruno Senna in the RGR Sport by Morand Ligier, posting a 3:38.734 for the #43. Also looking far better than early form might have suggested, the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca had eased upwards to take 26th overall, Jeroen Bleekemolen taking over from Ben Keating.

As we moved on towards half-past eight, there was a pitstop for the leader, Richelmi managing to pit and return without loss of position. At the next stop, forty minutes later, there’d be a driver swap as well, with Menezes taking over, but throughout the #38 continued to develop a lead, growing to roughly two minutes over René Rast in the G-Drive Oreca. Behind these two, a battle was brewing between Victor Shaytar in the #37 SMP Racing BR01 and Jonny Kane in the #42 Strakka Racing Gibson. There was no doubt that Kane had the better pace, but how long was it going to take the Geordie driver to catch, and then pas the Russian.

In the end the answer was “not long”. At twenty past nine Kane made a firm and determined move to snatch class third from Shaytar. The two were almost side-by-side on the run down to the first Mulsanne chicane, and at the last moment Kane out-braked the Russian and snicked in across his nose. Shaytar backed right off, and then resumed the chase, but started to fall back steadily.

By this time we’d had confirmation of two more official LMP2 retirements. Added to the #47 KCMG, de-listed after 116 laps, were the #35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine on 234 laps, and the #46 Thiriet by TDS Oreca on 241 laps. At soon after half-nine G-Drive Racing made an announcement that the #38 had also been retired, and having covered ‘just’ 222 laps, it would classify as tenth entry to be pulled.

Quarter to ten and we had a coming-together between the #49 Michael Shank Racing Ligier, and the #40 Krohn Racing Ligier. The two had been side-by-side on the final approach to the first chicane, and under braking John Pew had allowed the nose of the #49 to twitch to the left, catching the bright green #40 across the nose. Both cars then nudged the Armco alongside the track before negotiating the tyrewall chicane and carrying round to a precautionary pitstop. Krohn’s proves to be lengthy, and drops the #40 down half a dozen positions, rejoining in 26th.

The #44 Manor Motorsport Oreca meanwhile was penalised for “constant abuse of track limits”; Roberto Merhi pushing a little too hard perhaps in his attempts to recover some of the team’s lost ground.

As we rounded ten o’clock, and closure on the 19th hour, the #36 Signatech Alpine continued to led from Will Stevens, now back in the #26, and Nick Leventis, who’d taken over from Jonny Kane in the Strakka Racing Gibson, ten seconds ahead of Petrov, now at the helm of the SMP Racing #37.

GTE: Am static, Pro race a thriller

Right on the hour the leaders in GTE Pro were both in the pits. Routine stops, both taking tyres and changing drivers, the #68 Ford seemed to have a slight delay with the right rear wheel, which meant its new charge Dirk Muller lost a more time to the Risi Ferrari, responsibility for its lead now with Matteo Malucelli. An eighteen second gap to Richard Westbrook’s #69 car meant the Pro battle still seemed heavily loaded towards the Fords. Marco Sorensen was back at the wheel of the #95 Aston Martin, fourth on the road but owing a stop to Stefan Mucke’s #66 Ford, 1 minute 50s behind. Jonny Adam’s #97 Aston was still circulating steadily in sixth, but over three minutes behind.

The second placed #68 Ford’s pit stop on lap 238 was under investigation by the stewards as Malucelli pushed on, his lead now just under 17 seconds.

In the Am class, Wolf Henzler was having some fun with the rejuvenated #78 KCMG Porsche. Though the car’s earlier maladies had dropped it out of contention, the Porsche works driver had recorded several quickest sectors and the car’s fastest lap of the race, a 3:58.417, as it tried to elevate itself from eleventh position in class.

Though Francois Perrodo’s performance was improving the #83 AF Corse Ferrari’s third place, it remained a long way back from second, the #88 Proton Porsche respectively still out on its own trailing Sweedler’s leading Ferrari.

Rob Bell was doing typically quick laps for Clearwater Racing in fourth though, again, a lap adrift of third.

Ben Barker’s #86 Gulf Porsche had been the only car doing sub-four minutes times in Am at this point, the distinctively liveried 911 RSR running seventh, before David Heinemeier-Hansson decided to turn the wick up in the second placed Porsche, a 3:59.700 lap would be the #88 car’s best of the race so far, soon bettered to 3:58.855 as the car’s fuel load decreased and it tried to make inroads to the #62 Ferrari’s lead while it pitted.

Gary Hirsch’s #99 Aston Martin was also creeping up the order having survived the night and proving that pace isn’t everything in bringing a car home at Le Mans. Hirsch would nevertheless post the car’s best lap, a 3:59.913, as the car ran tenth in class.

A drive-through penalty was handed to the #68 Ford GT in second place. The engine was running during refuelling for Dirk Muller. Expected to take around 30 seconds, this would quadruple the leading Ferrari’s gap. The #68 car did the dutiful thing on lap 245, which meant Malucelli’s lead would stretch to 39 seconds.

Heinemeier-Hansson would pit the second placed Am Porsche as the hour drew to a close. Stefan Mucke recorded the #66 Ford’s best lap of the race, a 3:52.612 in pursuit of the #95 Aston Martin currently fourth with Marco Sorensen over three minutes up the road.

Dirk Muller’s stop taking longer than Malucelli’s the #68 Ford wasn’t showing much sign of threatening the lead Ferrari just yet. A 32 second lead was maintained by the Risi car after both had stopped.
In GTE Am, Perrodo and Bell both pitted from third and fourth respectively, Bell getting the better outcome and putting the #61 Ferrari onto the same lap as the Porsche.

At this point it was worth noting the number of retirements listed in the GTE classes:
Tommy Milner the most recent loss through his accident in the #64 Corvette, both ‘works’ Porsches had pulled down the shutters during the night, as had both the ‘WEC’ AF Corse Ferraris bringing the GTE Pro toll to five.

Despite a lot of pit work, the GTE Am class was all still circulating bar one: the early accident that befell the #89 Proton Competition Porsche made it the only confirmed retirement.

As the stewards finally ran out of leniency for the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche for exceeding track limits (it was running second last in Pro – and it would even go on to receive a second Stop/Go for ‘constant abuse of track limits’ in the same hour), the #50 Larbre Corvette lost it in the Porsche Curves, Yamagishi making backward contact with the wall on driver’s right. The rear end damage didn’t look too bad, but the position of the car at this rapid section of the circuit prompted slow zone conditions.

At the GTE Pro front end Ford was back in attack mode, Dirk Muller halving Malucelli’s lead. Fifteen seconds separated the pair as the Le Mans 24 hours moved into its final quarter. The #68 Ford GT was starting to advance at a second a lap, both cars in clear air. Muller flashing his lights as he approached backmarkers, the Ford got the gap to under 10 seconds and continued to push hard. This was turning into a nail-biter.

Both cars were into the pits bang on the hour. Malucelli stayed aboard the Ferrari, while Joey Hand jumped back aboard the #68 Ford, positions maintained, the gap back up to 7 seconds having been down to 4 seconds before the stops.

In Am, Townsend Bell was back at the wheel of the leading #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, a lap ahead of the #88 Porsche, Al Qubaisi now taking his turn at the wheel. Perrodo handed over to Rui Aguas in the third placed #83 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia.