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Le Mans 24 Hours: Hour 1, As It Happened, Big Battles In GTE Pro

Mega first stint from Conway in LMP1, furious battles in GTE Pro

LMP1

At the start, the #4 ByKolles cut the Dunlop Chicane, resulting in Tom Dillmann gaining a few places, but he immediately pulled off the racing line to give those back. Gustavo Menezes in the #3 Rebellion took third from by Vitaly Petrov in the #11 SMP, while SMP #17 with Stephane Sarrazin followed in fifth. Bruno Senna in the #1 Rebellion stayed sixth, while Ben Hanley in the #10 DragonSpeed and the ByKolles followed through in seventh and eighth.

However, the two Toyotas managed to keep their 1-2 grid positions, but on the second half of the Mulsanne Straight, Menezes took second from the #8 Toyota with Sebastien Buemi at the wheel, but before the end of the lap Buemi took it back.

Leader Mike Conway in the #7 Toyota immediately built a four-and-a-half second gap to Buemi behind him, with Menezes slipping back to four seconds behind the Swiss. The four Rebellions and SMPs were running almost nose-to-tail, though, with the four cars separated by under three seconds at the end of the second lap. Hanley slipped to three seconds further back, while Dillmann brought up the rear of the LMP1 field, 17 seconds behind leader Conway.

Conway was on a charge, though. His third lap of the race had the highest average speed over a single lap ever recorded at Le Mans, at 248.4kph (a 3.17.4). His next lap was even quicker, a 3:17.297 generating an average speed of 248.6kph.

Six laps into the race and the LMP1s already started to encounter traffic. At least in LMP1, it didn’t affect anything in terms of positions, with Conway now holding a 10-second lead over Buemi, who had a four-second gap to Menezes. Petrov followed Menezes, but a gap between Petrov and team-mate Sarrazin had started to form, who was fighting with Senna for fifth and sixth.

Almost half an hour into the race, Senna and Sarrazin pitted for fuel, which resulted in Senna leapfrogging Sarrazin, as did Dillmann in the eighth place ByKolles. The next lap, Buemi, Menezes, Petrov and Hanley also pitted for fuel, with Menezes’ #3 Rebellion also getting a nose change due to front-left bodywork damage. DragonSpeed made a strategic mistake, calling Anthony Davidson’s #31 Oreca LMP2 in at the same time as the #10, meaning both lost multiple seconds and allowing Dillmann to jump up to seventh.

The lap after that, Conway pitted from his mega first stint, taking on fuel. Conway’s stop was 10 seconds longer than team-mate Buemi’s due to the fact Conway stayed out a lap longer and had built that gap, using more fuel, but it didn’t affect the positions.

At 50 minutes into the race, Senna in the #1 Rebellion slowed on track and crawled back to the pits. However, when he did eventually got there, Radio Le Mans reported the tyres were not deflated despite the team replacing them and sending the car on its way. This led to speculation that the tyre pressure sensor system had developed a fault, leading the team to tell Senna to lap slowly lest a tyre burst and cause internal damage, when actually all four tyres were still inflated. This dropped Senna to towards the back of the LMP1 field.

LMP2

After one hour of action at the 87th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, the #36 Signatech Alpine of Nicolas Lapierre heads the LMP2 order, ahead of pole-sitter Matthieu Vaxiviere in the #28 TDS Racing Oreca.

As the race got underway in the ultra-competitive secondary prototype class, Vaxiviere got the best start of anyone, while Nicolas Lapierre (#36 Signatech Alpine) out-gunned Dragonspeed’s Anthony Davidson on the approach to the first braking zone.

There was something of an accordion effect at the first chicane, but all but the slightest of contact was avoided, and everyone survived the first lap without issue.

Davidson held third in the early going, ahead of Giedo van der Garde in the #29 Racing Team Nederland Dallara, and Jean-Eric Vergne in the #26 G-Drive Oreca.

With 22 minutes of racing in the books, rain was reported at the Mulsanne Corner, though it didn’t seem to be particularly detrimental to the grip levels or lap times.

Before the first stops, the leading LMP2 cars were largely spread out, but when a majority of the teams did call their cars in for the first time after nine laps, the deck was shuffled.

Emerging from the pits first was the Signatech Alpine of Lapierre, coming out ahead of the TDS Oreca of Vaxiviere, which had made its first stop one lap earlier than a majority of the class. Meanwhile, Vergne’s G-Drive outfit managed to dispatch the Frenchman quickly enough to gain third in class, just clear of Van Der Garde.

With almost 40 minutes in the books, Nicolas Jamin (#30 Duqueine Engineering Oreca) suffered an apparent tyre issue, losing well over a lap with the front-left of the car down. Even though the Michelin that came off the car didn’t look to be lacking air, it was only a tyre change before the car was sent back out.

When it did rejoin circuit, it did so ahead of the battle for second place between Lapierre, Vaxiviere and van der garde, who were separated by less than a second. They remained in the same order after dispatching the Duqueine car.

Just before the one-hour mark, a Full Course Yellow was deployed due to a spinning GTE AM car; of the front-runners, only van der Garde was pulled into pit road. It will be interesting to see how that decision influences the second hour in LMP2.

GTE Pro

The #63 Corvette with Antonio Garcia led at the end of the first hour in GTE Pro, as the American squad staked its claim to the 2019 title. Garcia led the #93 and #92 Porsches with Nick Tandy and Michael Christensen at the wheel respectively.

The start of the race seemed to be a sprint for the leaders in the class, with battles going on throughout the field in the early running.

Nikki Thiim took the start in the polesitting #95 Aston Martin and was able to draw a small lead in the opening lap due to Harry Tincknell in the #67 Ford and Garcia in the #63 Corvette fighting along the Mulsanne and into Indianapolis.

On the first lap, it looked as though Garcia had taken second but Tincknell was able to hold on around the outside to keep the position.

But he would soon lose it and Corvette moved into second by the third lap. It was just one of the fights in the class, with fights up and down the field.

Garcia continued his charge to put the Corvette to the top of the field, pulling off a fantastic move around the outside of Indianapolis on lap four to take the lead.

The fight was just starting with four manufacturers being featured in the top four, with Corvette leading Aston Martin, Ford and the #93 Porsche with Kevin Estre behind the wheel.

Tincknell continued to lose positions in the #67 Ford, making a slight error and running wide after 25 minutes, falling from third to fifth, behind the #92 and #93 Porsches.

Thiim came under assault from the Estre in the #92 Porsche with the latter taking the second position after 40 minutes after an ongoing fight. The two battled door-to-door for half a lap before the Porsche took the advantage.

The leaders came into the pits after 51 minutes or 13 laps. The #93 Corvette led the #92 Porsche and #95 Aston Martin.The only team to change drivers was the #92 Porsche, with Christensen jumping in the car and bringing the car into third. The #95 Aston Martin lost some time in the stops and fell to fifth position.

The fight continued at the end of the hour, with the field bunched up after the pitstops and the full-course yellow, providing some exciting battles.

GTE Am

It was Giancarlo Fisicella in the #54 Spirit of the Race Ferrari who led GTE Am at the end of the first hour, despite the Porsches leading for most of the period. In second was Matt Campbell in the #77 Proton Dempsey Porsche and Ben Barker in the #86 Gulf Porsche in third.

It was a battle of the Pros at the beginning, with most of the cars letting their gun drivers take the start.

Porsche dominated in the first laps with the #88 Dempsey Proton of Matteo Cairoli leading team-mate in the #77 Campbell. You had to go back to fifth with Jeff Segal in the #84 JMW Ferrari for the first non-Porsche entry.

The leading prototype runners were hitting the back runners inside five laps. The battles ran throughout the field for the first hour before the first pitstops came after 48 minutes.

The first cars in the pits included the leading #88 Porsche with Cairoli jumping out of the car and Satoshi Hoshino jumping in. The #86 Porsche and #54 Ferrari also came in after 12 laps. The rest of the field pitted on the following lap.

Then, the #88 of Hoshino spun while battling with the Project 1 Porsche. Hoshino was able to keep the car off the wall but was stuck broadside across the track for a short time before continuing.

He arrived back at the pits by the end of the hour for the team to take a look over the car.