The safety cars made their first appearance at the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans with a significant clean up effort of tyre debris on the Mulsanne before the Forza Chicane.
The two Toyotas continued to lead after a back and forth hour between the two cars.
During the hour Fernando Alonso had charged to the front taking the lead from in the #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050. He passed Lopez in the #7 Toyota for the lead at the Porsche Curves. Having chased Lopez down, Alonso put in a number of great laps including setting purple sectors on his in lap, clearly showing his intent for his stint.
To make matters worse for the #7 Toyota, they made an unscheduled pitstop to change a punctured left rear tyre. They also took on 10 seconds of fuel in the stop.
At the end of the safety car, Alonso made a stop, putting Lopez back in the lead by 4.5 seconds.
Third was the #17 SMP Racing BR1 with Egor Orudzhev ahead of the #3 Rebellion Racing with Mattias Beche.
There were not many incidents throughout the hour in LMP1 but the #6 CEFC TRSM Racing of Oliver Rowland clouted the barrier while the race was under yellow and is toured back to the pits for repairs.
After the incident at the start of the race, Andre Lotterer talked to DSC at the end of his stint. He said that the didn’t believe he touched the rear of the Toyota and had he done so, it was not enough of an impact to cause the damage to the front of the Rebellion. He said “the team told me they will have to look into the process of mounting the nose.” Implying what we suspected that the nose was not properly mounted at the start and was certainly dislodged before turn 1 at the started of the race.
The #26 G-Drive Racing continued to hold a strong lead with Andrea Pizzitola maintaining a lead of almost 1:20 for the duration of the hour.
Second continued to be the #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut with Pierre Thiriet behind the wheel about a minute and half off the lead.The Graff-SO24 with Jonathan Hirschi was third around an extra minute behind.
The big news of the hour was the tyre blowout for the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing entry with Gabriel Aubry behind the wheel. The failure, which occurred at high speed before the Forza Chicane, saw an explosive blowout, tearing the front left fender apart on the ORECA.
Aubry was able to keep control of the car and get back to the pits before being pushed into the garage. The tyre had kept pressure but experienced a significant failure. The incident brought out the safety car.
The car was still in the garage at the end of the hour.
There was more trouble for the #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara with Filipe Nasr spinning the car into the gravel at the same point of the circuit that the car crashed earlier in the weekend. Fortunately for Nasr, the car just entered the gravel. It was craned out and found its way back to the pits before continuing on.
The #22 United Autosport of Philip Hanson had a small spin at the Forza Chicane but was able to continue without additional issue.
Now that the drivers were into the race proper, and memories of practice and qualifying lay behind them, it was becoming evident that the two BMWs were far more competitive, in race trim, than pre-race form had suggested. Augusto Farfus was showing this enhanced M8 GTE potential by muscling the #82 car through into sixth, ahead of Richard Westbrook’s #69 Ford, and just 1.5 seconds adrift of Olivier Pla’s #66 Ford GT. Two days earlier, who’d have predicted that?
Farfus pulled into Pla’s draft and made his move on the run towards Indianapolis, getting past the Ford as the cars went through the right-hand kink, just before the braking zone.
Ahead of this, Sébastien Bourdais was beginning to give the leading Porsche pair something to think about. Lapping in the 3:51s, the #68 Ford GT was now just a second behind.
Under pressure from the Ford, now right on their tails, Vanthoor pulled out alongside Makowiecki as the two Porsches exited Mulsanne Corner, and the pair ran side-by-side all the way along the fastest section of track. They jostled slightly from side to side, with Bourdais visible between them but unable to make a move while the Porsches made themselves as wide as the track would allow.
Bearing down into the Indianapolis right-hander and holding the inside line, Vanthoor was able to make the move stick, and nicked through into the lead, leaving Makowiecki to tuck in behind, Bourdais taking a look up the inside of the distracted Makowiecki, but thinking better of trying a lunge.
The three were back neatly in line again for the run to the end of the lap, and there was little between them as they swept through the Dunlop Curve and into the chicane. Persistence paid off for Bourdais though, hungry for the lead, and as the threesome belted along the Mulsanne, he was able to slipstream on the Porsches and take the position convincingly into the first chicane. It was the first true lead for the Blue Oval in this race.
The air was suddenly taken out of all this thrilling racecraft by the deployment of the first Safety Car of the race, prompted by the blow-out and delaminating tyre for the slow-moving #38 Jackie Chan Jota Oreca. Within seconds of the announcement, Makowiecki’s pit crew seized the opportunity to call their driver into the pits. Bourdais and most of the rest of the Pro field followed suit next time around.
The ten minutes or so under the safety car weren’t without their interesting consequences, as tactics came into play. The race went green again shortly before the end of the hour, and Kevin Estre was back aboard the #92 Porsche and leading again. Significantly, however, his advantage over the rest of the GTE-Pro order had suddenly stretched to what might previously have been, unimaginably, a complete lap. Such can be the impact of a safety car, well worked tactically by a quick-thinking team.
Second place was back with BMW again, but it was the #81 car that had gained the advantage this time, with Nicky Catsburg aboard.
The #69 Ford had been handed to Scott Dixon and was now in third place. The #52 AF Corse Ferrari had risen to fourth through the pit stop shake up. Sébastien Bourdais’ work at the front had been wasted, the #68 now down to seventh. Equally surprising was that the erstwhile leading #91 Porsche was down to ninth with Richard Lietz installed for the first time.
With Julien Andlauer settling his #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche into the class lead, his team-mate was coming back into contention. Giorgio Roda had taken over in the cockpit of the #88 car and passed Thomas Flohr for third. The cars were separated by Cooper MacNeil’s JMW Ferrari, and the gaps between the top three were considerable, varying between 30 seconds and almost a full minute.
Having started well down the grid order, four from the back row, the #98 Aston Martin Vantage was starting to make progress through the ranks. Matthias Lauda had taken over cockpit duties from Pedro Lamy, who’d stealthily made his way through most of the Am runners to set the Aston sixth in class, behind Erik Maris’s Ebimotors Porsche. This has been a relatively low-profile week for the seasoned GTE-Am campaigners, but they know how to play the long game, and they’re digging in.
The #88 car was reported to the stewards for constant abuse of track limits, leaving the third-placed Porsche liable for a time or stop-go penalty. The outcome of this decision hadn’t been announced when the #88 made a dive to the pits, looking to gain an advantage under the safety car. Unfortunately, consequences would render this a fruitless tactic.
As predicted, the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche got its drive-through penalty for exceeding track limits; a significant blow having already lost ground during the Safety Car period. This placed the Project 1 Porsche third, behind the #77 and the #84.
Racing resumed shortly before the end of the hour … but not for long.