An unfortunately-timed safety car – which you can read more about in the GTE Pro section – has caused a rift in the Toyota battle at the front of the LMP1 order and overall classification.
As we crossed the eight-hour mark, the leading #8 Toyota was pulled in, with Sebastien Buemi staying in for another stint. The #7 pitted moments later, with Jose Maria Lopez pitting and handing over to Mike Conway.
Conway returned to the circuit just clear of Buemi, who had suffered some traffic at the Ford Chicane; the #7 Toyota returned to the front of the order by mere tenths.
Buemi, who admitted to not finding much pace in his opening stint on Saturday afternoon, initially lost a couple of seconds to Conway, but began to reel in the #7 at around 11:30pm local time, crossing the line just six tenths off the lead as the two TS050s started lap 139.
Meanwhile, the fifth-place #3 Rebellion was the ultimate pace-setter out on circuit; a 3:18.720 for Gustavo Menezes some five seconds quicker than the pace of either Toyota as we approached midnight. That lap time was the fastest of the race to date for the #3.
Menezes pitted at around 20 to the hour, but quickly slotted back into a pace superior to everyone else on the circuit.
Another round of stops for Toyota skewed the battle once more. This time, Conway got out some eight seconds clear of Buemi courtesy of an impressive pit stop, and this gap had extended by a further four seconds shortly after Sunday morning was welcomed in at La Sarthe.
The gap between the pair had shrunk a little over the first 20 minutes of the new day, before a safety car should have condensed them together once more. However, it soon dawned on observers that the two cars were in separate queues, with Buemi at the head of one queue, and Conway at the tail-end of the other three minutes ahead.
Potentially, a big moment for the intra-Gazoo race as it approaches the 10-hour mark.
Elsewhere, a pitstop for Vitaly Petrov (#11 SMP Racing BR1) allowed the #3 Rebellion of Gustavo Menezes to leap into fourth by just a few seconds, as both cars ended up in the same safety car train; as we approached 1am, the #3 Rebellion came back into the pits, allowing Petrov back through.
Shortly after the race went back to green flag, Buemi pitted the #8 Toyota. All this meant a two-minute, 15-second gap between the two TS050s with just 15 minutes of the tenth hour left to run.
Away from the lead battles, the troubled #10 Dragonspeed BR1 spent the closing minutes of Sunday’s first hour limping back to pits with what appeared to be a puncture; just another woe for the team and Renger Van Der Zande behind the wheel.
A minute and four seconds separates the two Toyotas as we descend further into the night, with Conway still heading the way in the #7.
LMP1 wasn’t the only battle hampered by the safety-car period after midnight, as the long-standing fight for the lead in LMP2 was also split up.
Jean-Eric Vergne was showing exemplary pace in the G-Drive Oreca as we entered the second third of the race, building a gap over sportscar veteran Nicolas Lapierre in the #36 Signatech Alpine.
On lap 132, at 11:40pm local time, both of the top two cars pitted once again. Not for the first time, the battling pit crews and cars came very close to tangling, as both are situated almost next-door to one another in the garages.
Vergne vacated the G-Drive car, handing the Oreca 07 – unofficially badged as an Aurus 01 – over to Job Van Uitert. The young Dutchman quickly settled into his rhythm in the leading car, and continued to hold an advantage of well under 10 seconds over Lapierre. Meanwhile, the #31 DragonSpeed Oreca of Roberto Gonzalez was holding station roughly 90 seconds further back in third.
Sitting behind the pair of Jackie Chan DC Orecas and the United Autosports Ligier in class – running in seventh – was Loic Duval in the #28 TDS Racing Oreca. After an extremely strong start for the car with Matthieu Vaxiviere at the wheel, time has since been lost due to bronze-rated Francois Perrodo’s laps.
A slow zone due to a Porsche Curves spin for a GT car saw the LMP2 top two come in together a lap or two ahead of schedule, for the time saving available courtesy of rival teams having to idle through the final section of the circuit. This time around, Lapierre vacated the #36 Signatech Alpine, and Pierre Thiriet took over.
However, the same Safety Car period that separated the Toyotas in LMP1 also proved detrimental to the lead battle in LMP2, with Job Van Uitert ending up in a separate ‘snake’ from the second-placed Pierre Thiriet.
Once the race returned to green flag conditions, the gap between the leading pair was one minute and 21 seconds. As we hit 1am both cars have come into pit lane, but the gap still sits at around one minute and 20 seconds.
James Calado battled to the lead at the end of the 10th hour, taking the lead after the track went to green.
Michael Christensen in the #92 Porsche had continued to lead through the ninth and tenth hours in GTE Pro, before losing the lead to Calado. The two battled with the traffic, with this contest looking to continue for many more hours.
The lead battle that had up to 11 cars in it at some stages in the race has been split for the moment, with the leading two cars benefitting from a safety-car period, where they were behind one and the rest of the field behind another.
It left Jan Magnussen in the #63 Corvette a third of a lap off the leaders, with a further six GTE Pro entries in that mix, including three Fords – the #67 (above), #68 and #69, joined by the #91 and #93 Porsches and the #71 Ferrari in that gaggle.
However, the #71 came into the pits at the end of the hour to look at a potential mechanical issue with the car as it was reported to be dropping fluid on the track.
Naturally, even in this endurance race, there was some fighting, particularly in the second battle as the drivers seek to make back as much time as they can. Patrick Pilet in the #93 Porsche took third in the class near the end of the 10th hour.
The #66 Ford and #94 Porsche also came together, resulting in a spin but no real damage to the Ford.
This was a disastrous period of the race for the Aston Martin Racing squad. First of all there was the #97 with Alex Lynn behind the wheel going off and inter the barrier. While the car was able to get back to the pits, it was in the garage for a considerable amount of time .
The car needed attention at both the front and back, losing over 20 minutes in the pits. They were then hit with a 10-second penalty for safety-car procedure infractions.
Then it went from bad to worse, with Marco Sorensen in the #95 spinning at Indianapolis, with the car suffering heavy damage to the rear as it spun through the gravel. The medical car was also on hand for Sorensen due to the heavy impact. It’s likely that the car will be forced to retire after this impact.
Equally, the #81 BMW spent some time in the garage with the team working under the bonnet.
After 10 hours of running, the pitstop schedules continue to be routine, with around one stop per hour. The teams are still trying to save their tyres for the final few stints, as the allocation demands that GTE Pro cars cannot change at every stop.
Equally, others were lamenting their pace, with the Fords claiming to lose time in the initial acceleration, so if they get balked, they lose time to their rivals.
Jeroen Bleekemolen continued to hold a healthy lead in the #85 Keating Motorsports Ford GT, although the safety car closed the field behind the Ford.
Bleekemolen still holds a two-minute lead, but then the next three cars are with 20 seconds of each other with another two cars a third of a lap back.
Fighting back from a difficult portion of the race, the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche with Julian Andlauer behind the wheel had battled back to as high as second in class, having been down in fifth and some way off the podium positions. At the end of the hour, they were in fourth, having made a pitstop
Patrick Lindsay in the #56 Project 1 Porsche was second at the end of the hour, ahead of the #84 JMW Ferrari with Wei Lu at the wheel.
The remaining Aston Martin in the class, the TF Sport entry, was in fifth with Euan Hankey involved in a great fight with Toni Vilander in the #62 WeatherTech Ferrari.
The positions would change as the drivers cycled through their pitstops, and most of the teams have completed either nine or 10 stops to date with the Porsche being the first to pit out of the leaders in the category.
It’ll play a key role in this class, while there are no tyre restrictions in GTE Am, it’s becoming clearer that saving a lap or two on fuel may have an impact on this race.
The class remained relatively stable during the period, with the MR Racing Ferrari taking a one-minute penalty for speeding in a slow zone.