What is almost certain to be the first official retirement of the race occurred during the hour with the #4 ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 with Dominik Kraihamer heavily into the wall at the Porsche Curves.
Kraihamer was attempting to lap a string of GT cars at the Porsche Curves and made contact with the #80 Ebimotors Porsche with the two touching, immediately breaking the prototype sending it into the wall. The impact was violent tearing bodywork off the front and the back of the car.
Fortunately Kraihamer was not injured in the crash but sadly, it ended the race for the team and brought out the safety car.
The Toyotas continued to build the lead with both coming into the pits during the safety car period. Where in the last hour, it was the #7 Toyota TS050 that had a right rear puncture, this time was the turn of Fernando Alonso to have a right rear puncture.
This stop for Alonso came not long after their last stop, eliminating the potential tactical advantage the team had. It did give us a great battle at the ned of the safety car.
The two FIA world champions engaged in a massive battle after the race recommenced with the two Toyotas. Lopez and Alonso were fighting their way through the field after the green flag waved, jinking through multiple GT cars with both cars taking the fight beyond track limits.
It was an entertaining battle with both, somehow, not coming to grief. The two kept swapping positions and at the end of the hour it was Alonso in the lead under team orders. The two are separated by less than a second.
Third continued to be the #17 SMP Racing BR1 with Egor Orudzhev at the wheel. They are now two laps off the lead. Fourth is the #3 Rebellion R13 with Mathias Beche.
The #1 Rebellion R13 was pushed into the garage to replace the clutch pressure censor. The team had known about the problem and waited until the safety car to rectify the issue.
The safety car period also offered the #5 SEFC TSRM Racing Ginetta an opportunity to replace the nose. The car continues seventh in class.
There was good news for SMP Racing with the #11 getting back out on track after replacing a tyre sensor. Jenson Button is currently in the car, some 42 laps behind the leaders.
The #26 G-Drive team continued to lead throughout the fifth hour with the car getting up to fifth overall.
The G-Drive team were dominating the class with Roman Rusinov built up a significant lead from the 23 Panis Barthez Competition Ligier with Timothé Buret battling with the #36 Signatech Alpine with Pierre Thiriet.
At the end of the hour, the pitstop cycle had helped the Alpine stretch out a lead of almost a minute in the fight for second.
The biggest fight on track in the class is for 15th, 16th and 17th in class with Juan Pablo Montoya in the #32 United Autosports entry, Victor Shiatar in the #35 SMP Racing and the #40 G-Drive Racing entry of Enzo Guibbert all within six seconds of each other.
We started the hour briefly with racing resumed, after the safety cars were withdrawn following the return of the #38 to the pitlane, and opportunity for the marshals to clear away the remnants of the blown-out tyre.
Back up to racing speed, Antonio Giovinazzi made a great move around the outside of Scott Dixon’s #69 Ford into the first chicane to grab second place for the #52 AF Corse Ferrari.
Further back, Billy Johnson was losing his line through the Ford chicane, the #66 GT taking to the grass and landing particularly hard as the car rejoined the tarmac. Something at the right-rear evidently gave way under the impact, and the car started crabbing. It was a long journey back to the pitlane, but Dixon was able to maintain a reasonable pace, although had lost a stack of places by the time he returned to the race, emerging behind the majority of the GTE-Am field.
Meanwhile, we had a second safety car period following on quickly from the last. As reported above, Dominik Kraihamer had a frightening accident through the Porsche Curves after the rear was clipped by the Ebimotors GTE Am Porsche. The rear wing of the ByKolles LMP1 flew high into the air and the car instantly lost all traction with the tarmac. The Austrian had no control over anything that happened next, as the car spun across the front of the Porsche and thumped heavily into the barriers. The decision to deploy the safety cars was almost as quick as the unravelling incident.
The restart, when it came, could not have been more thrilling, and more impressive. Although three safety cars were deployed evenly around the circuit, one had significantly collected more of the field than the other two, and when withdrawn, a full-blown mêlée was unleashed, with the two leading Toyotas right in the middle.
Only regular drivers of the London Orbital M25 motorway would appreciate the sheer volume of traffic vying for contention at the restart. A wall of headlights signalled a multi-million Euro stampede of cutting-edge race machinery that represented most of the 2018 Le Mans entry.
To watch the next few minutes was to marvel at the skill, talent, and bravery of the current crop of Endurance drivers. The differentials in speed between the fastest LMPs and the GTE cars was never more apparent. The two Hybrids, in the hands of Alonso and Lopez, diced their way through the thickest traffic, using every available metre of track (and some beyond the limits), weaving like the most skilled rugby players between the equally determined Porsches, Ferraris and slower LMP2 cars. It was stunning to watch.
Amazingly, incredibly, there wasn’t a single touch or a nudge. Driving standards have to be applauded, as LMP’s sliced through a wall of GTE’s without incident, even though the LMP1 leaders found parts of the Le Mans tarmac previously unused in their attack through this phalanx of cars.
The GTE-Pro leader took to the pits, the order now Porsche 1-2-3 as Earl Bamber had taken the #93 car into second place, Lietz in the #91 car just over a second behind. The #68 Ford was piling on the pressure to this fight for second, which was a lap down on the leader.
After the stops the order changed again, such was the typically close nature of the fight in this category. The #81 BMW figured again; steady pace and, it has to be said, some luck with pit stops had placed Nicky Catsburg second, the Dutch driver starting to put some distance between himself and Lietz’s Porsche, which had Earl Bamber behind him now, but only just.
An epic challenge was going on behind as the #63 Corvette was monstered by a pair of Fords and the BMW of Antonio Da Costa on the Mulsanne straight. This was for seventh place, and Mike Rockenfeller held position for the American marque. Da Costa drew breath for a moment and charged again into the Dunlop chicane, Rockenfeller hanging on.
What ban hour it has been! The next looks set to start at a slightly more sedate tempo.
Sixty laps gone, and Jörg Bergmeister was quickly down to business in his first stint aboard the #56 Team Project 1 Porsche, passing Francesco Castellacci for third place, but that was shortly before the second safety car period, this time for the very serious accident for Dominik Kraihamer in the ByKolles LMP1 described above.
The #54 Ferrari also had Matthias Lauda to consider now, whose Aston Martin was very much in touch with the Spirit of Race ‘488 under the safety car. Compared to GTE Pro, however, the Am category was more noticeably strung out, and far less frenetic.
Martin Little & Marcus Potts