The fight at the front is down to two teams with Toyota and Rebellion in races of their own.
With Matevos Isaakyan’s spin at the Porsche Curves eliminating the #17 SMP Racing BR1 the fight at the front has changed.
Isaakyan and his desperate fight to get the SMP car back in the field though will be remembered from this edition.
The car was dragged behind the wall where Isaakyan pulled the engine cover off and attempted to clear the rear wheels of debris.
After some argument with the marshals about where he could repair the car, the driver wanted to do it on trackside where the marshals wanted a safer area, he was successful in getting the car moving again.
But as he tried to pull back onto the track, the engine did its best impression of a steam train and destroyed the engine. The car is now a retirement, but yet to be officially confirmed.
For the CEFC TRSM Ginetta team, both the #5 and #6 cars spent time in the garage. At first the #5 thought it had a slow puncture but the problem proved to be worse. There has been a lingering issues after Leo Roussel hit the wall earlier on in the race. The team are going over the car to determine and rectify the issue.
For the #6, there is a problem in the rear of the car that they are trying to identify. The team will take their time to check the cars and rectify the issues. This left Mike Conway in the #7 Toyota TS050 leading Sébastien Buemi in the #8 car. The difference at the end of the hour was around 35 seconds.
Third was Thomas Laurent in the #3 Rebellion R13 three laps behind with the #1 Rebellion R13 with André Lotterer a further lap behind.
The #11 SMP Racing BR1 was still circulating some 50 laps off the lead.
There had been a rumour circulating that Fernando Alonso had engaged reverse gear on his first pitstop. French TV had an angle of the stop that didn’t show the team member pushing the car. This resulted in two separate investigations from the race control and the stewards – looking at the data, talking to those on the scene. Both showed that there was no rule infringement. But there is nothing like a good conspiracy theory.
The #26 G-Drive Racing has maintained the lead in LMP2, extending it to almost a lap over the #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut entry.
As with most of the race the Signatech Alpine has been involved in a battle with the third-paced Panis Barthez Ligier and the Idec Sport ORECA with, now a minute separating the cars but pitstop strategy dictating the where they are in the order and in that fight.
The Algarve Pro Racing Ligier made it back out on track after spending and extended period in the garage with a gearbox issue. They are around 45 laps off the lead in class but are back on track with Mark Patterson in the cockpit.
For the Jackie Chan DC Racing #37 entry, there was more drama. The car went off at the Ford Chicane, bouncing across the grass. While the car was able to get back to the pits, the team had to replace the front and back bodywork. This is not the first time the team have had to change bits on the car during the race.
Attention shifted back to the head of the field, where Nick Tandy was maintaining his reputation for strong night sessions in a Porsche. He was beginning to apply the pressure on Fred Makowiecki, and drawing to within half a second of the #91 Porsche in second. The two cars were inseparable through Indianapolis and Arnage, but Makowiecki was able to defend, and then ease out a buffer of almost two seconds.
Additionally, the #81 BMW was being pedalled hard by Philipp Eng, the Austrian beginning his first race stint. The car itself has been performing well above expectations, having hidden under the radar all week and was now less than three seconds behind Tandy. The gaps between these three oscillated as they encountered traffic.
Out at the head of the pack, the #92 had the benefit of sufficient in reserve that Vanthoor, taking over from Christensen at the previous pitstop, was able to make another for fuel and tyres, three-quarters way into the ninth hour, without risking the car’s substantial lead. He resumed with 80 seconds still in hand., the #92 still out of sync with the rest of its classmates, seven hours after making an unscheduled early pitstop.
Makowiecki’s response to Tandy had stabilised the gap at 1.5 seconds as the British driver considered his next opportunity. Sébastien Bourdais, now aboard the ‘lead’ Ford GT #68, had managed to extend a gap to team-mate Westbrook, who now had 18 seconds over Magnussen’s Corvette.
With slow zones still in operation the Pro position appeared to have stabilised, at least for the moment, as cars approached their next round of stops.
Of the leaders, Tandy came in first, and all appeared to go smoothly. He rejoined in fourth, but was back in two laps later, and the #93 was dolly-wheeled back into the garage. The crew then began investigating the brakes and working inside the car.
The general pace of the Pro field quickly saw the #93 Porsche dropping down the order, and Phillip Eng was promoted into the top three for BMW. In the nether-regions of the category, the two Astons are still circulating, but more than two laps adrift.
Our apologies to the GTE-Am class, but there really hasn’t been a great deal happening here. To their credit, the cars appear to have been largely reliable, and since Della Lana’s unfortunate incident at the entrance to the Porsche Curves, there have been few if any significant errors or mechanical issues.
The exception to this is the Project 1 Porsche, which figured in the top three earlier during the evening, but has now slipped down the order to sixth, with Patrick Lindsey in the driving seat Just ahead in fifth Fisichella had his first incident, out-braking himself into the First Chicane, but continuing with nothing spoiled other than his pride.
And so the ninth hour drew to a close, with the only final note being that the #93 GTE-Pro Porsche was still in the garage, and going nowhere for the foreseeable future. More when we get news.
Martin Little & Marcus Potts