Until halfway into the 18th hour, the gaps in LMP1 remained roughly consistent, wth Sebastien Buemi taking over the #8 Toyota, with a gap of around a minute and 50 seconds to leader Mike Conway in #7 Toyota.
There was a further five laps between Buemi and Stoffel Vandoorne in the #11 SMP. However, the #3 Rebellion suffered yet more issues, with Nathanael Berthon going very slowly from halfway down the Mulsanne right around to the pits, where the team got it on the dolly jacks and spun it around, pushing it back into the garage – brakes the problem.
When it went back out 15 minutes later, it had gone 12 laps behind the leading #7 Toyota, and four laps behind Andre Lotterer in #1 Rebellion, which now sat in fourth, three laps behind Vandoorne
However, it wasn’t out for that long before pitting again for another unscheduled pitstop, with the car again being pushed back into the garage, with the brakes again the issue as the team attempted to diagnose and resolve the problem. With 80% of the lap around Circuit de la Sarthe on full throttle, brakes are just a little bit important!
The team got the car back out with brand-new brakes, but had slipped to 14 laps back, six behind the #3 Rebellion in fourth, which had Lotterer on board at the time. Berthon had also slipped behind the LMP2 leader, but had clawed back to get the gap just under 25 seconds behind at the four hours left mark.
At around the same time as Berthon pitted for the unscheduled brake change, Vandoorne handed over to Mikhail Aleshin after a three-hour stint at the wheel, with the car in third, six laps behind leader Conway. The Russian had a four-lap gap to Lotterer, with the #11 SMP having a good run with four hours left.
Front-running drama has re-written the story in LMP2, with the #26 G-Drive Oreca and Roman Rusinov falling down the order as we ticked over to the final quarter of the race.
With just over five hours and 45 minutes to run, the complexion of the race changed dramatically in pitlane. A regular pitstop turned into drama for the #26 Oreca; Rusinov came in, but then couldn’t get the car fired up again. It was pushed back into the pits, and the #36 Alpine of Thiriet arrived and departed as the G-Drive outfit continued to work on the car.
Ultimately, the G-Drive would lose over 20 minutes, six places and almost five laps in the LMP2 class, dropping to seventh.
Meanwhile, the #30 Duqueine Engineering Oreca moved up to fourth at the expense of the #22 United Autosports Ligier; Pierre Ragues showing superior pace over Phil Hanson, and building a gap of around 20 seconds over the course of the 19th hour. The battle at the lower end of the top five was becoming intriguing, as the #48 IDEC Sport Oreca was within 40 seconds of the #22 Ligier.
Meanwhile, the troubled sister #32 Ligier lost its engine cover on the approach to Indianapolis; Will Owen returned the car to the pits and a full-course yellow was deployed to remove the engine cover from its resting place on-track.
With five hours to go, the #36 Alpine was now a lap clear of the pack, and with Nicolas Lapierre at the wheel.
The battle for second looked much closer with four-and-a-half hours left to run, courtesy of a challenge from the #28 TDS Racing Oreca driven by Loic Duval. The Frenchman was a mere 23 seconds back from the #38 Jackie Chan DC Oreca of Stephane Richelmi. However, Duval pitted at this stage, handing over to bronze-rated Francois Perrodo, who would ultimately struggle to match his predecessor’s pace.
Perrodo jumped into the #28 with a near two-lap advantage over Filipe Albuquerque in the #22 Ligier.
Elsewhere, Nigel Moore found himself limping home in the #34 Inter Europol Ligier due to a left-rear puncture; this would do little to change the complexion of the race, with the yellow and green Ligier JSP217 running 16th in class.
As we came towards the end of the twentieth hour, the former leader – the #26 G Drive entry – was running seventh, a lap off the #48 IDEC Sport Oreca ahead. Jean-Eric Vergne is now behind the wheel, but so long as all goes smoothly, even the impressive Frenchman is unlikely to catch the top six.
All is well for Lapierre out front, however; the #36 Signatech Alpine still leads the way by a lap at Le Mans as the clock ticks over to begin the final four hours.
The fight at the front of the GTE Pro field remained stable, with the #63 Corvette, #51 AF Corse Ferrari and the #91 and #93 Porsches all still in the hunt for the win.
At the 20-hour mark the Corvette held the lead over the AF Corse machine, but the gap was barely 15 seconds with the Corvette owing a pitstop. The keY, though, will be when the safety car periods hit and whether the Corvette can take advantage of its fuel strategy to maximise its result.
The two Porsches are slightly off the pace of the other two, but are within hunting distance if the leading duo have any issues. Gimmi Bruni in the #91 set the car’s best lap on lap 272, in an effort to close the gap.
The lap time of 3:50.149 was about 0.5 to a second better than the two cars ahead of it.
Tactics are playing a part for the leaders. The Corvette, driven by Mike Rockenfeller and Antonio Garcia, has slightly better fuel consumption and is running an alternate strategy to the Ferrari.
There’s a difference of about five laps between when the cars pit, meaning that the lead swaps between them both, depending on the pitstop cycle.
Both cars are continuing to double-stint drivers and tyres. Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi handled the driving duties for the Ferrari over the period.
At the end of the 18th hour, the four cars were covered by less than a minute. Behind the four cars came the four Fords led by the #68 and Sebastien Bourdais. Then the #67 led the #68 and #66, with a little over a lap coving all four cars.
The Risi Competizione Ferrari was in ninth ahead of the leading #82 BMW. Both these cars have had fairly anonymous races, never challenging the front runners.
The #85 Keating Ford continued to lead, with Am driver Ben Keating completing his triple stint, covering 44 laps before handing it to Jeroen Bleekemolen and then Felipe Fraga.
The Ford has spent the vast majority of the race in the lead and has been ensuring its driving trio are getting close to their minimum driving time to ensure there are no panicked situations towards in the final four hours.
Fortunately for the crew, there was no ill effect from the car’s earlier spin into the gravel.
Equally, there was a slow brake change for the Ford, with the right front offering issues for the team and losing them 40 seconds to the second-placed car. The gap reduced from more than three minutes to just 50 seconds, though undoubtedly pitstops will play a part, the gap is the smallest it has been for quite some time.
Chasing down the Ford and second in the class was the #56 Project 1 Porsche with Jorg Bergmeister and Egido Perfetti taking the driving duties. They also had a slow brake change, but lost not nearly as much time of the leading car. They also spent much of the period in their own race, they closed the gap to the lead while maintaining more than a minute back to the third placed car – the #84 JMW Ferrari.
Ferraris then take the rest of the top five in class with the Clearwater entry sitting in fourth ahead of the WeatherTech car. Early leader the #77 Dempsey Proton Porsche lies in sixth, two laps off the lead.
Two other Ferraris were handed severe penalties for drive-time infractions during the period. The #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari will have three laps deleted and a three-minute penalty for the infraction. Meanwhile, the #57 CarGuys car received a similar penalty for a similar infraction.
While no doubt bothersome for the teams, they weren’t in outright contention with the CarGuys sitting in seventh the Spirit of Race Ferrari in ninth.