Two hours to go, and this race still had some surprises up its sleeve. If most of the drivers out there were content just to maintain a steady place towards the finish, enough were in the hunt for glory to ensure there were battles aplenty to entertain and intrigue.
Out at the front, Bernhard continued to slice huge chunks out of the lead of the #38 Jackie Chan Oreca Gibson; the Porsche driver capable of throwing down a succession of laps in the low three-twenties. Ho-Pin Tung, back in the cockpit of the #38, was hustling hard, but could rarely better a 3:32. Half an hour into the penultimate hour and the gap between the two had been halved in little over thirty-five minutes. Bernhard had another 60 seconds to destroy.
While an overall win would always be a fabulous achievement for an LMP2 team, any realistic focus would have centred upon the gap back to the second placed #35 Signatech Alpine. The chasing squad know what it feels like to win at Le Mans, having arrived here this month as the defending LMP2 title-holders. In 2016 Nicolas Lapierre, Gustavo Menezes and Stéphane Richelmi took the class win for Signatech Alpine, finishing fifth overall. They would dearly love to get back-to-back wins.
Having said that, Thomas Laurent’s lap times in the #38 were consistently a match for anything being thrown at him, although André Negrao posted a 3:38.798 on low fuel before pitting the #35 Alpine for routine replenishment. Unfortunately, this pulled him right into the clutches of Piquet Jr; the Rebellion chasing the Alpine down the Mulsanne straight, closing on the #35 as they approached Indianapolis, where the gap visibly narrowed as the duo negotiated GT traffic. Piquet Jr’s pace was enough to unsettle the car through Porsche Curves, allowing Negrao to escape. The gap as the two crossed the line was just under four seconds, thanks largely to fortuitous positioning for the Alpine through the traffic.
Now it was the stewards’ turn to add to the controversy by slapping a 10-second penalty onto the third-placed #13 Rebellion, to be added to its next pit stop. After what appeared lengthy deliberation the car had been deemed responsible for the earlier collision with #49 ARC Bratislava Ligier, running 47th overall. At the same time that this was announced, Piquet Jr was in attack mode, having made up a chunk of time on track, exiting the Ford Chicane in a straight fight for position with the #35 Alpine car. Drawing level on the Mulsanne straight, the Rebellion made its move stick before the first chicane. This ballsy spectacle would come to nothing at the hands of the stewards though, effectively handing back second place to Negrao and Alpine.
The leading #38 Oreca was back into pitlane for routine stop at twenty-past, with Laurent handing over to Ho-Pin Tung and losing a little more time in the process. Meanwhile, perhaps to prove a point and be sure of another mention in the record books, Seb Buemi hustled across the line in an impressive 3:18.604 on the #8 Toyota’s 330th lap to set fastest lap of the race.
Half an hour before two and Piquet Jr pitted the #13 Rebellion from second and then no doubt held his breath as the engine-off penalty was served. The Oreca’s Gibson coughed briefly before restarting, and with 90 minutes still to run, Negrao’s advantage was 2 minutes 10 seconds. Bernhard’s gap to the leading LMP2 Oreca was now 1 minute and falling.
Largely unnoticed through these distractions the second Jackie Chan DC car was also pushing hard as Tristan Gommendy’s lap times in the 3:33’s matched his leading team mate’s. At 38 seconds off third place, the #37 car was in range of the #13 Vaillante Rebellion and would no doubt be a distraction to its drivers. If the Jackie Chan DC squad could put two cars on the LMP2 podium this would be an incredible result for the Jota-run team.
Various routine stops were completed, including a full service with tyres for the #35 Alpine, Negrao staying aboard.
It was ten minutes before the end of the hour that Bernhard started flashing his lights. Ho-Pin Tung was probably well aware that the Porsche was on his tail, and closing fast. The two arrived at Indianapolis almost together, but the Porsche had the braking and handling advantage, and dived through on the inside of the right-hander, taking the lead with aplomb. No resistance was offered by Tung in the #38 JCDC Oreca and natural order was restored. The #2 Porsche lead the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time.
That closed the 23rd Hour, and the leader-board looked very different … again:
1. #2 Porsche 919-Hybrid LM P1 – 349 Laps
2. #38 Jackie Chan Racing
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. #8 Toyota TS050 LMP1
10. #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara
11. #34 Tockwith Motorsports Ligier
12. #36 Signatech Alpine Gibson
13. #17 IDEC Sport Racing Ligier
The final stints would see Jonny Adam, Fred Makowiecki and Jan Magnussen aboard the duelling #97, #91 and #63 Aston, Porsche and Corvette respectively, with Harry Tincknell in the #67 Ford dipping up into third temporarily when the Corvette stopped.
There was late contact in GTE Am when the #50 Larbre Corvette (driven by Philippon) hit the #65 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari of Alessandro Balzan, giving the latter car a left-rear puncture a forcing Balzan to attempt almost an entire lap back to the bits with the car in its damaged state. The incident was declared under investigation by the stewards.
15 minutes to go until the end of the hour in Pro, it was Adam from Magnussen from Makowiecki, with the latter two expected to be able to make it to the end with one more routine stop, but the Aston believed to require an additional splash-and-dash to make the flag.