Looking back, just to set the scene, the morning’s clear blue skies had steadily greyed over, and as the cars took up their positions on the grid for the pre-race festivities, the outlook was cloudy with the promise (from Race Control) of rain within the opening hour.
The French tricoleur, fringed with gold, was delivered to the track by a trio of fully camouflaged soldiers, abseiling to the ground from a military helicopter. In full gear and balaclavas, they sprinted from the Ford Chicane to the grid, where they handed over the flag to Rafael Nadal, who had the honour of waving off the cars at the start of the 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Heralded by a fly-past from the Patrouille Acrobatique de France, trailing red, white and blue smoke, the cars headed out onto the parade lap at 14:50 … except the #4 ByKolles Enso, which was last away.
There was drama at the start of the Formation Lap as first the ByKolles refuses to fire for Tom Dillmann, then, when, after some delay, he finally coaxed the #4 CLM ENSO Nismo into life, he spun on cold tyres at Dunlop.
The #4 though finally got going to join the very rear of the pack.
As the lights went green though the #1 Rebellion in the hands of Andre Lotterer went wide to look for a possible way in amongst the Toyotas, and almost found one, but lightly tagged the rear of the #8, the bodywork dislodged and departing at Dunlop, tagging the rear of Ben Hanley in the #10 Dragonspeed BR1, the BR1 spun but rejoined, the Rebellion, completing the first lap way down the field for attention – rejoining dead last after just over 60 seconds in the pits.
In all of that excitement, Alex Brundle emerged up in 5th in the #6 Ginetta, only to be demoted to sixth on the run down to Indianapolis by Petrov in the #11 SMP BR1. The sister Ginetta though was in trouble, Mike Simpson had made his way by several LMP2s until the timing screens showed him slowing with a warning that the car was losing front bodywork (possibly after contact with an LMP2 car). He carried on though, but his next lap was very slow, the car pitting next time around – a 2:30 spell in the pits before emerging.
The Toyotas meanwhile were getting away – fast – Lap 3 and the gap was almost 9 seconds back to the 3rd placed #11 SMP BR1 of Stephane Sarrazin with Conway leading Buemi by just tenths.
The #4 and #1 meanwhile were in the midst of their recovery drives – By Lap 4 Dillman was midway through the LMP2 pack – into the top 20 overall, Lotterer meanwhile had just cleared the GTEs, into the top 30.
Lap 5 and the Toyotas switched places, Conway dropping back some 3 seconds from Buemi.
Next for an unscheduled stop was Hanley in the #10, reporting a vibration, the car was checked but released, Hanley recovering back up the field and soon back with, and amongst the LMP1 pack.
Just before the pit stops Laurent was getting stuck in to Sarrazin through traffic, the older hand though grabbed back third.
The first pit stop cycle and there was further profit for the #8, emerging some 7 seconds faster than the sister car, 18 seconds the lead gap as the race passed the 40-minute mark. Sarrazin was, by now, and post his stop, 35 seconds down.
Almost at the top of the hour there was drama for Alex Brundle, the car reported slow o track and Brundle making his way back to the pits, dropping back down the order after a strong start, the car rejoining after a system reset back now in 24th slot
By the top of the hour the order was the same, Buemi (#8) from Conway (#7) then Sarrazin (#17), Laurent (#3), Petrov #11 and Hanley (#10) the top 6, Dillmann was almost with the LMP1 pack in the #4 with just the leading LMP2 car separating him from the #6 with Lotterer (#1) climbing back up the order (12th at the top of the hour) and Simpson doing the same, albeit rather further down the order in the delayed #5 Ginetta (33rd at top of the hour).
It was Jean-Eric Vergne in the #26 G-Drive ORECA leading the LMP2 field after the first hour and the first round of pitstops.
He led the Loïc Duval in the #28 TDS Racing ORECA by eight-seconds, the #36 Signatech Alpine and the pole sitting #48 IDEC Sport ORECA involved in a fight some seven-seconds further back.
The LMP2 runners had avoided the drama of the LMP1 field off the start and there were no major issues at the start or on the track for any of the runners.
There was an early pitstop for the #35 SMP Racing Dallara with Victor Shitar bringing the car in after four laps. It was a routine pitstop taken early on strategy to avoid the en-mass stops that would soon come.
After seven laps, the first round of pitstops came. Ten cars stopped on that lap with the remaining cars on the next lap with the exception of the #35 SMP Racing and #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing team.
The #31 Dragonspeed ORECA was the major loser in the first round of pitstops. They had led off the start but dropped down to 11th in class. Their stop was 1:17 was more than 13 seconds slower than the cars they were fighting with.
The #48 IDEC Sport entry could have their third place in under threat with their pitstop being reported to the Stewards.
The first mechanical drama occurred on the second lap with the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Ligier Gibson crawling back to the pits.
Jazeman Jaafar was immediately wheeled into the garage with the team pouring over the engine and radiator area of the car. The problem tuned out to be a hose clip. With that replaced and a new load of fluids, the car went back out albeit three laps down.
As far as sporting flags go, the #44 Eurasia Motorsport Ligier JSP217 with Tracy Krohn was shown the black and white flag for exceeding track limits.
GTE Pro & GTE Am
While the leaders in LMP1 were bumping their way through Dunlop, leaving a trail of debris, it was a clean start in both GTE classes, with only a few changes in order during the opening lap. Most significant, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari lost two positions on the first tour. Matters then settled down as the leading pair of retro-liveried Porsches started to ease away.
In GTE Am there was a similar story, although pole sitter Matteo Cairoli couldn’t resist Ben Barker’s pace as the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche 911 RSR, who forced his way into the lead at the green light, followed by Giancarlo Fisichella, who used all his experience in a rocket-start that took the #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari into second from the second row. The #88 Dempsey Proton 911 RSR had slipped two places on that first lap, while the second Dempsey Porsche, #77, held fourth ahead of the #90 TF Sport Aston.
Moving up in GTE Pro were the Fords, with the #68 taking fourth on the opening lap, and then closing on the #66 to take third a lap later, Dirk Müller getting the better of team-mate Stefan Mücke. Having lost fifth to the works Porsche #93 on the second lap, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado snatched the position back for AF Corse on lap four, dicing through the Mulsanne kink.
The Porsche pair leading GTE Pro had an advantage of over 2.5 seconds by the end of the fifth lap, and it was then that the leaders, Estre and Bruni, switched places, the ‘Pink Pig’ moving out in front, the pair almost ‘pacing’ each other as they edged away from Müller and Mücke’s #68 and #66 Fords. Calado and Pilet were then joined by Antonio Garcia’s Corvette, these three tied together.
Rain was by then being reported as falling quite heavily at the far end of the circuit, but largely, the track remained dry, offering the challenge of changeable grip levels to the drivers. At the end of the fifth lap, Barker dived into the pits very early for fuel and tyres from the lead in GTE Am, leaving Fisichella heading Cairoli by a second, the other Dempsey Proton car third in the hands of Matt Campbell.
Seven laps in, and the lead in GTE Pro had swapped back, the Rothman’s 911 now back in the lead, ahead of the Pink Pig. Further back, a mover in the nether regions of GTE Am was Pat Long in the #99 Porsche, up from second-to-last at the start, to 8th, having overtaken six cars in six laps.
In the middle order of Pro, there was a keen battle going on between the lower-ordered Ford GTs and the BMWs. Into Arnage and Augusto Farfus made his #82 BMW’s presence felt as he made contact with Ryan Briscoe’s #69 Ford, the latter having dropped two places to tenth. In Am, the Keating Ferrari #85 (Bleekemolen) nipped through ahead of Matt Griffin in the #61 Clearwater F48.
Bruni started to put a little distance between the Porsches as the the Pro field entered the pits after 40 minutes for the first of the scheduled pitstops, with the leading GTE Pro Porsche, the #92, as well as the #94 calling in for fuel and fresh, Kevin Estre confirming a change of compounds. Others pitting included the #67 and #69 Ford GTs, leaving the #91 leading from the #68 and #69 Fords. Most of the rest then pitted next time around.
It wasn’t until the completion of the 12th lap that the race order became apparent again, and the significant mover as a result of the pitstops was the #91, dropping to third behind the #68 to give the Ford a clear sight of the now-leading #92 Pink Pig, less than a second ahead – Estre having handed over to Michael Christensen. A loser in the pitstop had been the #66 Ford, dropping to sixth from third, and the #71 AF Corse Ferrari, ending up 13th (from 8th) after an extended stop.
Ben Barker’s earlier stop, out of sync with the rest of the Am class, meant the Gulf Racing Porsche was now back out front in GTE Am, ten seconds his advantage over the #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari, Fisichella exiting pitlane ahead of the #88 Porsche. The #77 Porsche was now sixth, having been taken by the Clearwater and JMW Ferraris, third and fourth.
As we came up to the end of the first hour, the anticipated close-fought battle between Porsche and Ford had come to fruition, with close contention throughout, and both the BMWs and the two works Astons had been able to keep in touch with the Porsches and Ferraris. The mix of marques in GTE Am was much more evenly spaced.