Much of the first half of hour 17 was taken up by the safety car, but when the race returned to green-flag action the gaps were roughly the same as they had been for the past few hours, with around one minute and 25 seconds between the two Toyotas, #7 leading #8.
Gustavo Menezes, in the #3 Rebellion, was now four laps behind #7 Toyota, although he was the fastest non-hybrid. However, a penalty due to a tyre compound usage violation meant the car was given a three-minute stop-go penalty, putting him behind Stoffel Vandoorne in the #11 SMP. However, they were now on the same lap and only had a gap of three seconds separating them, with Menezes doing everything he could to close this and get his position back.
While pushing hard, Menezes spun the car off into the gravel trap at Porsche Curves, beaching the car and requiring a recovery vehicle to lift it out, putting it multiple laps behind Vandoorne. Menezes managed to get it back to the pits and the team immediately put the dolly jacks under the car and pushed it into the garage.
When the car came out, it was close to its sister entry, the #3, which had Bruno Senna at the wheel, separated by around 30 seconds on track but in reality with a lap’s gap between them. At the turn of the hour, Andre Lotterer climbed aboard the car as the race entered its final quarter, while leader Mike Conway in #7 Toyota had a one minute 40 second gap to teammate Kazuki Nakajima in #8 Toyota. He held a four-lap lead over Vandoorne, who then had a three-lap lead to the recovering Menezes in the recovering #3 Rebellion.
The #26 Oreca from the G-Drive Racing camp continues to lead the way in the secondary prototype class, as the race enters its final six hours.
Seconds after the race entered its final third – the eight-hour mark – the top two LMP2 cars continued their long run of mirrored pitstops, with Job Van Uitert (#26 Oreca) some way clear of Andre Negrao in the #36 Alpine.
A few minutes into the 17th hour, Pastor Maldonado had a big moment coming out of Tertre Rouge. The #31 DragonSpeed Oreca found the barriers at the exit of the corner, and heavy frontal damage was the result. Maldonado got out of the car on his own terms, but the car would go no further; a tough end for the team after being a race-long class podium contender.
A long safety-car period was the result of this accident, staying out for upwards of half an hour. Once the green flags waved again, the gap between Van Uitert and Negrao revealed itself to be over two minutes and 20 seconds, which would continue to be the case for the remainder of the hour; just before the end of hour 17, the two cars would pit on the same lap once again.
The top two cars would be inherited by Roman Rusinov (#26) and Pierre Thiriet (#36) respectively. Gabriel Aubry held third as the race entered hour 18; the driver in the #38 Jackie Chan DC Oreca just a minute back from the Alpine.
Elsewhere, the battle for sixth was looking close. The #48 IDEC Sport Oreca of Memo Rojas was under pressure from the Nicolas Jamin-driven #30 Duqueine Engineering Oreca. Both were mere tenths apart, with Jamin on the attack, but Rojas would ultimately pit with 10 minutes of hour 18 in the books.
The stop put Jamin into the top half-dozen; a good achievement for the team that lost a lap and more with an early race puncture. There was more scope for the car to progress too; it was just 10 seconds back from the #22 United Autosports Ligier of Phil Hanson, and therefore, the overall top five.
Six hour and 35 minutes remaining, and the #38 Jackie Chan DC Oreca has slowed on track, and makes its way back to pit lane; the car did not lose its position to the fourth-placed #28 TDS Oreca of Francois Perrodo. Ho-Pin Tung was now behind the wheel of the #38, which seemingly suffered a puncture at the end of Gabriel Aubry’s stint.
Meanwhile, Jamin had successfully reeled in Hanson with 25 minutes of the race’s third quarter left to run. The Frenchman would have to wait to engage the Brit in the United Autosports Ligier, however. He peeled into the pits, and would then hand over the #30 to Pierre Ragues.
Rusinov currently leads the race in the G-Drive Oreca by over three minutes; could the Russian put a lap on all his rivals in the next couple of hours? It looks like a distinct possibility.
As hour 17 began at 7am local time, Richard Lietz (#91 Porsche) and Jan Magnussen (#63 Corvette) were running 1-2 in the GTE Pro ranks, ahead of Patrick Pilet in the #93 Porsche, although the true leader was fourth-place James Calado in the #51 Ferrari, out of sequence on pitstops.
When the safety car came out for Pastor Maldonado’s LMP2 crash, Lietz was immediately into the pits in the #91 Porsche, while a little later the #68 Ford of Joey Hand also stopped under neutralised conditions.
Both Magnussen and Pilet pitted just after the safety car withdrew, Rockenfeller taking over from Magnussen in the #63 and Pilet staying aboard the Porsche. Their stops allowed the #51 Ferrari, now being driven by 2017 winner Daniel Serra, to reclaim the lead.
Serra was a minute up the road from Rockenfeller as the clock ticked past 8am local time, with Pilet trailing the second-place Corvette by 11 seconds.
Elsewhere, the #94 Porsche of Sven Muller, long out of contention for a podium, was pulled back into the garage for an extended maintenance stop.
Approaching 9am local time, the order at the head of the field was still #51 Ferrari from #63 Corvette from #93 Porsche from #91 Porsche.
Jonathan Bomarito in the #67 was the highest classified Ford runner, but the chances of a podium finish for the car in its final event as a works entry now looked slim.
A routine stop for the #51 took us to the top of the hour, with Serra ceding the wheel to Alessandro Pier Guidi.
Under the Maldonado safety car, the Clearwater Ferrari made a pitstop, with Matteo Cressoni taking over the wheel from Matt Griffin. As did the #77 Proton Porsche, with Christian Reid climbing on board.
After the safety car came in, class leader Ben Keating had an off in the #85 Ford at the first chicane, possibly caught out on cold tyres. The car skidded through the gravel, but escaped any damage and rejoined with its lead largely intact.
Further back down the order, the TF Sport Aston Martin, with Salih Yoluc currently driving, suffered a delay as the team attended to an apparent steering issue.
And at the head of the class, the second-place Team Project 1 Porsche and third-place JMW Ferrari now had Patrick Lindsey and Rodrigo Baptista respectively at the wheel, while the fourth-place WeatherTech Ferrari was back in the hands of Cooper MacNeil.
The Gulf Porsche, running 10th in class after Mike Wainwright’s earlier off, was then pinged with a stop-go penalty for not respecting the full-course yellow procedure.
Approaching 9am local time, Keating was still aboard the class-leading Ford, with a slightly reduced but still very comfortable gap back to Lindsey in the Project 1 Porsche. Keating pitted about 10 minutes to the hour, with the car undergoing a brake change and the wheel being handed over to Jeroen Bleekemolen.
Keating said of his stint: “Just got out after three hours. We have the lead we have because we waited till this morning to have my time in the car. I still have three hours to do. I’d much rather be in front than having the chase the leaders. It feels like me or the car is getting better with every lap!”
Jorg Bergmeister, meanwhile, had taken over the second-on-class Project 1 Porsche from Lindsey.