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Le Mans 24 Hours: Observations After Nine Hours

A closer look at how things are unfolding throughout the field

LMP classes

The prototype classes settled into a pattern as darkness set in. In P1, Vandoorne reported that the tyres on the #11 had caused him a bit of a problem in the fourth stint, but still felt he had the overall pace to catch up with the #3 Rebellion. Indeed, a two-minute stop for #3, caused when the Rebellion was hemmed in by other cars in the pitlane, was enough to put both SMPs through to third and fourth overall.

French hot-shot Laurent took over #3 with a 45-second deficit to overcome to #17 and 1:35 to #11. It was no surprise to see him try, though. He was the quickest driver on track at times and worked his way up, helped by a Safety Car, retaking third place with what has to be the move of the race so far and probably outright, on the outside of the fastest right-hander in the Porsche Curves. The move was simply outstanding and it’s no surprise that he has been signed by Toyota. Credit to Aleshin, too, for being aware of exactly what Laurent intended to do.

But then shortly afterwards, Laurent lost the Rebellion under braking for the second chicane, the car snapping violently right into the barrier and causing major front-end damage. The fact the car was back on track within three minutes and 38 seconds of entering the pits was miraculous and could be hugely significant to the outcome of the race.

Hugues de Chaunac never even had time to consider shedding a tear and they were back in the hunt! “He seemed to hit it at the perfect angle. We managed to get back and a new nose on the car. We had to stay in for three minutes anyway under FCY, so we put it in the box to give it a full check around. He seems ok. It was wet and slippy, he lost it under brakes,” team principal Bart Hayden said. Laurent reported that he had no idea what happened.

This meant that #3 had more hard work to do. Laurent’s pace immediately after the accident was more subdued. The question was whether the violent impact might cause further problems as the race wears on. Menezes was back into the 3:20s when he took over #3, but it is advantage SMP here, with nothing to choose between either car.

The #8 and #7 both lost around 90 seconds waiting to leave the pits when the first Safety Car was deployed in the sixth hour, but it will take something much more serious than that to prevent a Toyota 1-2. The lead did change multiple times in the evening, possibly involving some team decisions (to wrestle TV coverage from the other class fights?) but also following a mistake from Lopez as he outbraked himself into Mulsanne Corner and ran through the gravel on the exit.

Kolles and DragonSpeed’s #10 have still been circulating, but are completely out of contention, with many laps lost. “We’ve fixed it again. It’s been the same all week. Not that surprising. We’ve struggled with this machine since we got it. It’s really disappointing. I’m proud of Henrik Hedman for sticking around, nobody in their right mind would stick around this long. But he understands what the team is about. Dallara needs to get things sorted out. On the other side, we have an ORECA [in P2] that runs, surprise, surprise. You have to love the fight at the front of LMP2. It’s really fun,” DragonSpeed owner Elton Julian said on TV coverage.

Speaking to DSC, he later added: “We’re fighting on, we always do, but it feels like a losing battle with the car. We’ve tried to fix the problems, Dallara have tried to fix the problems, but ultimately it’s looking like a bridge too far. We knew it would be like this here, and we tried, really very hard, to get agreement from the organisers to run a different car here in LMP1. The discussions went a long way down the road but ultimately we did not get the necessary approval. With hindsight, that’s a real shame.”

DSC believes that the team sought approval to run the Ginetta-AER, but that organisers did not give approval for the switch of car.

In P2, #36 ceded the lead when Van Uitert’s #26 G-Drive Aurus (above) inched up to #36 and made the move on the run down to the first chicane with 3:52 of the race run. Negrao worked hard to bring the #36 back onto the tail of Rusinov’s #26 after the driver changes and then a bold move into the second chicane restored the lead. Signatech’s drivers were under instructions not to take any risks in this battle, because #26 is not a championship contender, but the move was very decisive.

The lead pair also made the most of being able to dive into the pits when the #64 Corvette’s crash brought out the Safety Car. It was remarkable that with nearly six hours gone, they were effectively running an identical race. Vergne’s pace was then ultimately faster than Negrao’s and his stint into darkness formed the foundation for building a class lead, aided by Signatech having to manoeuvre around a neighbouring car during a pitstop. DragonSpeed’s #31 is mixing it with the #38 JCDC car for third place, but over the course of the three-driver roster, DragonSpeed has the advantage.

Graff had began to establish themselves in the top 10, steadily and stealthily rising through the leaderboard, which is often a good recipe for a podium finish at Le Mans, but they hit problems at the end of the eight hour. They lost 12 minutes in the pits with a starter motor problem, so Panis Barthez joined TDS, both United Autosports Ligiers (#22 in particular improving as the car balance came to them after early oversteer problems) and IDEC Sport in the top ten instead. With the driver cycles all running through and this pack staying consistently out front regardless, anyone in the top 10 seemed a reasonable selection for the ultimate podium at this stage.

The titles could well go down to the dying moments of the race with all of the protagonists still very much in the hunt. Signatech will take the drivers and team’s titles as things stand.

Dunlop are looking for their ninth straight victory in P2, so G-Drive, TDS and Jackie Chan DC Racing are their real hopes, but the might of the Michelin completion looks quite daunting as things stood at midnight.

GTE classes

As the race pressed on into the evening, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari had a calculated advantage, taking left-side tyres at a scheduled stop. The race out of the pits was won by the #92 Porsche, Laurens Vanthoor having elected to double stint a full set of boots, but Daniel Serra had the edge on grip and took back the lead on the road as the battle resumed. This was a significant prelude to a battle that would last well into darkness.

Throughout the race, a split pattern between teams had settled in, this apparently the symptom of teams not quite knowing where to go on strategy. In trying different tyre compounds between their runners, ‘forward’ and ‘rearward’ groupings had emerged. With changing conditions, including briefly wet track scenarios, this was a spread bet as to how things might develop. Aston Martin had been particularly hit by this, trying all sorts of things which, for the moment, had only taken them backwards. The hope was that night conditions could swing things more in their favour, but Safety Car positions hadn’t helped either.

Corvette’s impressive performance was spoiled by another misjudgement from the #88 GTE Am Dempsey-Proton Porsche, which had turned in early while being lapped. The stricken #64 Corvette, hard in the wall at the Porsche Curves, brought out the Safety Car and posted the race’s first official retirement.

“He was talking and walking, we believe we have the safest GT cars in the world,” Corvette Racing’s Doug Fehan said. “Our crush zone, seating, side window nets have come into play. As a precaution he’s down at the medical centre. He’ll be back later, and the car looks too badly damaged to be repaired. But we’ve done this before, we’ve been here and won without two cars, it’s not over yet.”

A subsequent Stewards’ Decision however laid blame with the Swiss driver, who has been fined €7,000 and had six penalty points applied to his license for allegedly causing the collision. With Porsche having eventually wrestled the lead away from the #51 Ferrari to the tune of eight seconds, at seven hours in this was the first time in the GTE Pro race a tangible lead had been established. As midnight approached, though, James Calado was belted back into the Ferrari; a second quicker than the Porsche, Michael Christensen was hauled in and passed, the British driver soon extending a gap to resume control for AF Corse.

The top 10 was covered by less than a lap, although more spread out now, and was mostly contested by Porsche and Ford entries. The notable interloper had become the #71 AF Corse Ferrari, Sam Bird working hard to promote the 488 GTE to sixth place. Italy was starting to look quite a threat.

Although the #81 car had spent time in its pit with a front-left suspension issue, BMW MTEK’s fortunes were otherwise barely worthy of note, rarely threatening the top 10 in class. The M8 GTEs had been split by the #71 AF Corse Ferrari earlier in the race, which had by comparison since improved considerably.

Further evidence of AF Corsa’s form could be drawn from Risi Competizione’s fortunes. Running the same car, the team had struggled to unlock its performance all week, had struggled on its tyres and recently picked up a 10-second penalty. Oliver Jarvis had done the lion’s share of the driving.

He said: “The start of the race went as planned and we managed to get close to cars that were in front. I had a really good battle and managed to overtake the BMW just before the end of the first stint, which was nice. Unfortunately, the second stint we struggled a little bit more with tyre wear, but we’ve made huge progress from all weekend to now. We’re still hanging in there, but I think we’re just going to get quicker and quicker. We could do with a bit of luck with a safety car to bunch it all back up.”

In GTE Am, Keating Motorsports (above) forged on at the front, Jeroen Bleekemolen the foil to extend the Wynn’s-liveried privateer Ford GT’s lead to over a minute as the pursuing JMW Ferrari and Project 1 Porsche stretched themselves over nearly three minutes for second and third.

With only five cars on the lead lap, GTE Am’s race profile looked quite different to that of GTE Pro. A cushion was clearly being established before the bronze drivers stepped into the cars of the top three, Jeff Segal and Jorg Bergmeister still pedalling hard in pursuit of the Ford. The #85 car’s advantage improved as Wei Lu lost the JMW Ferrari at the second chicane, though without loss of position.

Dempsey-Proton’s controversial #88 car was withdrawn following the incident that took out the #64 pro Corvette. Matteo Cairoli, who had been Porsche’s GTE Am star this weekend, stated “Satoshi is scared, he doesn’t want to take part again. We are going to retire. Luck wasn’t on our side, but we’ve made too many mistakes. The guys did an amazing job to keep repairing the car. Safety first, though.” This was a sad end to a stellar week before the race.

Pedro Lamy brought the #98 Aston Martin’s troublesome weekend to a close at the Mulsanne straight on his out-lap following more repairs. Pushed behind the barrier; another DNF to add to the team’s unlucky Le Mans outings.