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Le Mans 24 Hours: Hour 7, As It Happened, #8 Toyota Moves To The Lead

Drama for #3 Rebellion, Signatech and G-Drive LMP2 battle continues, Porsche v Ferrari v Corvette in GTE Pro

LMP1

At the head of the hour, Thomas Laurent in #3 Rebellion put a daring move around the outside in the Porsche Curves on Mikhail Aleshin in #11 SMP to retake third, putting the SMPs fourth and fifth. Sergey Sirotkin followed close behind in the #17 SMP.

However, minutes after his pass, Laurent lost the car entering the second chicane, taking a large chunk of bodywork from the front and immediately instigating a full-course yellow, which then turned into a safety car. As well as Laurent crawling around the circuit with what looked like heavy damage to the nose and internal crash structure, plus a puncture, the #11 SMP needed to pit to remove debris from the #3 Rebellion’s crash, which had lodged itself in the front of the SMP BR1.

Amazingly, Rebellion was able to fix the car in mere minutes, with the car seemingly only taking superficial bodywork damage. In the ensuing pit stops under full-course yellow and safety car, Kazuki Nakajima in the #8 Toyota took the lead from the #7 Toyota, which had Jose Maria Lopez at the wheel, who’d pitted beforehand, meaning Toyota made up over a minute on the following cars.

Laurent had a gap of two minutes to Aleshin, rapidly closing this in the ensuing laps, mostly due to the slow zones at the second chicane to repair the barriers after Laurent’s crash. To make up for his earlier mistake, Laurent was pushing hard, setting the fastest non-hybrid lap of the race – a 3:19.358. By the end the hour, he’d got the gap down to around 45 seconds.

Lopez took the lead back going through the second chicane after following Nakajima for a few laps, when Nakajima was held up by traffic and Lopez taking the chance. Both cars continued on their regular pitstop cycle, with Lopez extending a gap of around five seconds.

Both the ByKolles and the #10 DragonSpeed came back out of their lengthy stay in the garages, but with both many laps down – 17 for the ByKolles, 38 for the #10 DragonSpeed – they were solidly out of the running.

LMP2

Shortly after the clock ticked over to start the second quarter of the race, the drama for the #3 Rebellion saw a Full Course Yellow, and then a Safety Car. This development saw the lead battle remain fairly equidistant, with the leading pair six seconds apart once we returned to green-flag action.

Racing resumed with a little over 20 minutes of the hour in the books, and once again, the top two had been the only pair in the LMP2 leaders’ Safety Car train.

Meanwhile, the battle for fifth would suffer for the pause. The fifth and sixth-placed cars – the #22 United Ligier of Filipe Albuquerque and the #37 Jackie Chan DC Oreca of Ricky Taylor – were both pinged for overtaking under the Safety Car, and would both serve drive-through penalties.

The penalties would see the seventh-placed #39 Graff Oreca of Tristan Gommendy come closer to the overall top-five battle; the car that set the fastest time in qualifying, before its times were cancelled, was starting to look like a factor at the sharp end.

The Graff team would go on to retain seventh after a pitstop to install Jonathan Hirschi towards the end of the hour.

The top two visited pitlane together once again with just over 15 minutes of the hour left to run. Negrao stayed in the #36 Signatech Alpine, while Jean-Eric Vergne was re-installed into the G-Drive Oreca.

Vergne’s first flying lap was some three seconds faster than Negrao’s, reducing the gap to less than one-and-a-half seconds. And sure enough, just moments later, Vergne pushed through into the lead with a move at the Mulsanne Corner.

As we enter hour eight, Vergne leads from Negrao and Ho-Pin Tung, who is 52 seconds back from the top two in the #38 Oreca.

GTE Pro

The GTE Pro battle continued into the seventh hour with a nine-car battle between Ford, Ferrari and Corvette all being involved in the battle for the lead.

The four protagonists for the race so far – the #92 Porsche with Kevin Estre, #51 AF Corse Ferrari with Alessandro Pier Guidi, the #63 Corvette of Antonio Garcia and #91 Porsche with Gimmi Bruni – continued to lead the battle.

However, that four-car battle was soon joined by the #93 Porsche of Nick Tandy and the #67 Ford of Harry Tincknell, with the six cars separated by barely six seconds.

The second group of three was unable to keep the absolute pace of the leaders, with the #69 Ford of Ryan Briscoe battling with the #68 Ford of Sébastien Bourdais and the #71 AF Corse Ferrari of Davide Rigon.

The pace at the front of the field was fast after the full-course yellows and slow zones ended, with lap times in the 3:50s and 3:51s, proving to be near the fastest laps of the race.

This pace saw the cars with the outright pace pull away again with the top three – that of the #92 Porsche #51 Ferrari and #63 Corvette extending a small gap on the rest of the field.

However, those gaps cannot be taken for granted as there are small differences in the pitstop strategies, with cars no longer all pitting within a couple of laps of each other.

After seven hours, the field has generally made seven stops each, with the Porsches seemingly having to work harder at fuel saving than the other marques.

The #64 Corvette, the one involved in the heavy crash earlier in the race became the first official retirement of the race.

GTE Am

Jeroen Bleekemolen held a solid lead in the #85 Keating Ford in the GTE Am field.

Leading coming into the hour, the Ford team made the most of safety-car advantages to pull out a lap lead on the rest of the field.

Behind the lead, the field was spread out, with gaps of 90 seconds being the norm. While the on-track action may not have been on fire for this group, the tactics will be at play while the teams try to scramble their way back to the lead.

In second is the #84 JMW Ferrari, ahead of the #56 Project 1 Porsche with Jorg Bergmeister behind the wheel.

If there’s a demonstration of how a safety car can alter a race at Le Mans, the #77 Dempsey Proton is in fifth with Matt Campbell at the wheel. The car that was leading on an alternate strategy earlier in the race lost time under the safety car and is now around 1.5 laps off the lead.