Midday arrived to a collective sigh of relief, or perhaps nervous exhaustion. That last hour, like the tenth and eleventh before it, had been emotionally draining. The only trouble was, the niggling thought persisted that this race had yet more to throw at us.
The focus was now almost wholly on LMP2. Pierre Ragues’ Alpine was now less than 15 seconds behind Mathias Beche for third, the Swiss having taken his Stop/Go in the #13 Vaillante Rebellion. At quarter past Beche was back into the pitlane again, this time for a routine pitstop – fuel, tyres and driver chance to Nelson Piquet Jr. That far went to plan, but then the Gibson wouldn’t fire, and the crew wrestled with the engine cover to tinker with something under the panel. They quickly had the bodywork re-secured, but Pique’s attempts to restart weren’t immediately successful, but finally the engine thundered into life and the ex Renault F1 Brazilian was back out and racing. The car has time in hand, but every vital second counts.
That extended stop had not only allowed Laurent to pull further away in the class lead, but Pierre Ragues had also snuck through to take second place for Signatech Alpine. Although a lap down, Signatech Alpine must have had a mild scent of a victory wafting towards their nostrils.
If that gap was lengthening, the one between the #28 Jackie Chan Oreca and Brendon Hartley in the #2 Porsche was rapidly diminishing. As the clock showed 12:20, the gap stood at just one lap. Hartley’s lap times are consistent around the 3:24 mark, whereas Laurent’s best is nearer 3:30. It’s just a matter of time … and reliability. Not to be forgotten, of course, is the #8 Toyota, which is undoubtedly the fastest car on track, circulating in the low 3:22s, but with ten laps to make up in two-and-a-half hours, there’s no realistic chance of the outright win. A large slice of honour, however, can be salvaged.
James Winslow in the #39 Graff Oreca may have been slow to recognise the car in his rear mirror; the rapidly closing 919 Hybrid with Brendon Hartley at the wheel. Heading into and through the Porsche curves, the Kiwi racer was forced to lift briefly before finding a way through. Onmce past, he pushed on towards pit entry, while Timo Bernhard was gloved and helmeted, preparing to take over the challenge from the pits. With the half hour just passed, Brendon arrived for the scheduled fuel fill, tyre change and driver swap to Bernhard.
A little way along the pitlane, Pierre Ragues was also pitting the second-placed #35 Alpine, Andre Negrao taking the wheel. Piquet Jr was 14 seconds off his tail.
Ten-to-one and Timo finally had the leading Jackie Chan Oreca in his sights as they worked through the Mulsanne chicanes. He closed inexorably, and then, on the run out of the Mulsanne Corner, the Porsche moved cleanly through, Timo unlapping himself for the final time. The first two cars in this race were back on the same lap.
Narrowly before the end of the hour Nelson Piquet Jr. pitted the #13 Vaillante Rebellion from third in LMP2, fourth overall. As the car settled back into a rhythm, Andre Negrao’s Alpine sat 1:15.332 further up the road. Also into the pitlane was Nakajima, handing over the helm of the #8 Toyota to Sébastien Buemi with a set of fresh boots. At this point it was estimated the TS050 would make no further progress without problems for the cars ahead.
While most eyes were focused on the battle for the overall lead, Matt McMurray was sufficiently distracted on the run into Mulsanne Corner to over-pace his approach, spinning the #45 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier neatly about-face and ending up backwards in the gravel. The car hasn’t featured much in the race to date and was running 36th overall. Aside from the resulting slowzone, it seems unlikely to again.
That closed off the 22nd Hour, and the leaders in LMP stood as:
1. #38 Jackie Chan Racing – 333 laps
2. #2 Porsche 919-Hybrid LM P1
3. #35 Signatech Alpine
4. #13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca
5. #37 Jackie Chan Racing
6. #32 United Autosports Ligier
7. #24 CEFC Manor TDS Racing Oreca
8. #40 Graff Oreca 07 Gibson
9. #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara
10. #8 Toyota TS050 LMP1
11. #34 Tockwith Motorsports Ligier
12. #36 Signatech Alpine Gibson
13. #17 IDEC Sport Racing Ligier
Hour 22 saw Daniel Serra have to do the job he’d done the previous hour all over again and pass the #63 Corvette, this time with Jordan Taylor at the wheel, but still holding the advantage when it comes to the pit stop sequence.
Barring any incidents, the battle for the win was definitively between these two marques and Porsche (in the shape of the #91) now, with last year protagonists Ford and Ferrari reduced to scrapping over the minor positions.
In GTE Am, the picture was even clearer with little over two hours to go: an established Ferrari top three of the #84 JMW, #55 Spirit Of Race and #62 Scuderia Corsa/WeatherTech 488s separated by reasonable gaps was counting down hours, minutes and seconds to the flag.