As we started the 11th hour, the gap between the pair of Toyotas and the #17 SMP Racing BR1 was two laps. Said #17 car entered pit lane in the opening stanza of hour eleven, and returned to track with Egor Orudzhev at the wheel. Gustavo Menezes, running in fourth place, was in the last stages of his stint; the American driver still lapping quicker than anything else on track by well over two seconds a lap, setting 3:21s with aplomb.
However, just moments later, the above would promptly change; Orudzhev hit the barriers in the last part of the Porsche curves, backing it into the tyres at high speed. This brought out a safety car, and seemingly ended the race for the #17 SMP outfit.
Mike Conway pitted the leading #7 Toyota, as he was running low on fuel, and as he was held until the next safety-car train passed by, this allowed Sebastien Buemi into the lead in the sister car. Also under SC, Menezes handed over the #3 Rebellion to Nathanael Berthon, and retained third place thanks to a handy cushion over Stoffel Vandoorne in the #11 SMP Racing BR1, which had moved up to fourth courtesy of the sister #17 car’s crash.
Once we went back to green-flag conditions with about 40 minutes of the 11th hour in the book, the gap between the two Toyotas was less than two seconds apart.
Entering hour 12, the pair of Toyotas were within a second, and the leading #8 of Buemi was reported as being slightly smokey by some trackside observers, but this didn’t seem to cause any pace drop-off or concern.
With 12 hours and 47 minutes remaining, Buemi pitted from the lead having done three stints. Fernando Alonso was waiting in the garage, but Buemi ended up staying in for a fourth stint.
Mike Conway pitted the #7 Toyota shortly thereafter. Kamui Kobayashi took over the car, and managed to exit pitlane in time to regain the lead from the #8 squad and Buemi; the pair were separated by just three-tenths of a second after over 11 hours and 20 minutes of running.
This gap would scarcely grow to beyond two seconds over the next 20 minutes, while the metronomic pace of the Toyotas would assure that they’d be the best part of three laps clear at half distance. There are just under 10 seconds between the pair of them, and Kobayashi’s #7 car is at the head of the order as we return to green-flag running.
The SMP LMP1-triggered safety car did few favours for the lead battle between the #26 G-Drive car of Job Van Uitert and Pierre Thiriet in the #36 Signatech Alpine, nor the gap between second and third in LMP2.
However, as we went back to green-flag conditions, the gap between the #31 DragonSpeed Oreca of Pastor Maldonado and David Heinemeier-Hansson in the #37 Jackie Chan DC Oreca came down. Sharing a safety-car train, the battle for fifth stayed within five seconds until the #37 peeled in for a pit stop just before the start of hour 12.
Meanwhile, Roman Rusinov took over the class-leading #26 Oreca at the top of the hour. The #36 Alpine of Pierre Thiriet was still over two minutes back after the unfortunate safety car draw a few hours prior.
The gap between the second and third place car was still hovering around one minute, with Gabriel Aubry sat at the wheel of the #37 Jackie Chan DC Oreca.
Further down the order, some of the more troubled cars in class were still circulating. The #39 Graff Oreca was running 13th in class after a spell in the garage earlier, and the ever-dramatic day for the #49 ARC Bratislava Ligier continued. The car was now confined to the garage after further dramas for Henning Enqvist.
Indeed, as we approached half distance, Enqvist would find the barriers at Indianapolis for the second time, after a spin at Mulsanne corner seconds prior. And then, moments later, it ended up stopped again at the Porsche Curves, this time bringing out a safety car.
As we approached the half-distance marker, Andre Negrao had now taken over the second-placed #36 Alpine, and was two minutes back from Roman Rusinov in the leading #26 G-Drive Oreca as we went back to green-flag action.
The only other car on the class lead lap is the #38 Jackie Chan DC Oreca of Ho-Pin Tung.
Laurens Vanthoor in the #92 Porsche had built a 30-second lead over the #51 AF Corse Ferrari with Daniel Serra at the wheel. After the intense battle earlier in the race, the Porsche was able to take the lead and build a buffer.
However, as can happen so often at Le Mans, the safety cars can alter the course of the race. The two leaders were behind the same safety car and the gap was reduced to just a couple of seconds.
But they were able to be two safety-car gaps ahead of the third to eighth-place cars being behind a second safety car, ensuring that the second half of the race is going to be exciting.
Under the safety car that occurred just before the halfway mark, it was Frederic Makowiecki in the #91 Porsche ahead of stablemate Earl Bamber in the #93 machine. The Corvette #63 that featured heavily in the early hours remained in the hunt with Mike Rockenfeller sitting in fifth.
Then three Fords ensured it was an American train, with the #69 ahead of the #68 and the #67.
However, the race is close; the third and fourth-place Porches and the Fords were a pitstop behind the leading duo and the Corvette, having completed 11 stops over the 12 of their competitors.
The #71 AF Corse Ferrari remained in the pits over the period after having a mechanical issue while the #97 Aston Martin was back on track having lost considerable time after an off earlier in the race.
Generally, the drivers in this class were double-stinting, with some like Ryan Briscoe triple-stinting through the race. The goal of preserving tyres still existed for those in the class. However, the running remained stable with little change over the two hours to the halfway mark.
The #85 Keating Ford continued to consolidate its lead during the 11th and 12th hours to take a handy lead into the second half of the race in the GTE Am class.
With Felipe Fraga behind the wheel, the Ford put in its best lap of the race during the 12th hour: a time of 3:54.760, which was around a tenth faster than its previous best.
It’s that sort of pace combined with consistency that allowed the car to build its lead for yet another couple of hours. They’re almost a lap ahead of a few cars that would not be battling on track, but would exchange positions through their pitstop cycles.
During the safety-car cycle, the Keating Ford was able to keep its big gap, with the #77 Dempsey Proton Porsche with Christian Reid, the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin of Charlie Eastwood behind the same safety car.
Further back, the cars included the #56 Project 1 Porsche with Jorg Bergmeister and the Ferraris of JMW and WeatherTech Racing with Rodrigo Bapista and Cooper MacNeill respectively, with this group of cars losing time during that period.
The resulting lesson in this class is that controlling the time loss for the Am driver is as important as fuel preservation.
With all five marques being featured among the leading cars, the pitstop strategy and not losing time unnecessarily will play an important part in this class.