The most significant development in the late morning was #26 chances of victory evaporating just after 9am, the emerging favourites falling seven places and out of contention by an inability to fire the car up again after a routine pitstop. The loom to the starter motor had to be replaced.
Signatech Alpine therefore inherited the lead, making the race look potentially incredibly profitable for the team – winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the P2 drivers’ championship and the P2 teams’ championship all at the same time would be an incredible achievement. Jackie Chan DC Racing’s #38 was still behind in second place, though, so there was no time for complacency. Losing the place to them would also mean handing all of those prizes over, too, and giving Dunlop yet another P2 victory.
Ho-Pin Tung was rueing the puncture: “We were closing in on the Alpine quite rapidly. We try to keep on pushing, the race so far has shown that it is never over until it is over. We struggled a bit in the beginning, we lacked a bit of pace but when the track came to us and when the night fell we picked up the pace.” The safety car deployment following a heavy crash for the #29 Racing Team Nederland at 11:30 also led to #38 being held at pit exit, causing another delay of nearly two minutes.
TDS (above) slotted into the final P2 podium position, Perrodo’s initial lack of pace was now seeming quite trivial compared with the issues suffered by others. Duqueine, the #22 United Autosports car, IDEC Sport and Panis-Barthez were also past the #26 and queuing up for further improvement should those ahead falter. Earlier, it had appeared as though the pace of the weakest driver would be key, but in fact TDS had managed to stay out of any other significant kind of trouble and they were now reaping the rewards.
The #22 United Autosport crew were somewhat resigned to the fact that a podium would only come if there were problems ahead and at 11am their aim was to try and preserve fourth place. They knew that the Ligier wouldn’t have the pace to simply drive to a strong result and so they were anticipating a defensive fight with the #30 Duqueine Engineering car rather than an offensive against the leaders. The pair were already swapping positions during routine pitstops so the closing strategic plays could well decide this duel, which might yet yield a podium.
Phil Hanson explained: “The first stints were good. I took over the car in P6 and gave it to Filipe in P6. The car is starting to handle a bit better now compared with the earlier stints of Filipe and Paul. It was a shame that our car had a drive-through penalty with Filipe for overtaking under the safety car before we lost time changing the door when the glass fell out. The balance wasn’t great early this morning. We are battling for fourth. Hopefully we’ll be able to catch up a few more positions with people falling out in the next few hours.”
The #32 United Autosports car had yet further problems when it lost its engine cover, probably a legacy of the earlier puncture and damage. Last of the P2 runners in 17th, this had turned into a race for Cullen, Brundle and Owen to forget. Brundle: “Driving into darkness on Saturday evening was fun. Having already changed the alternator, I had a left-rear tyre failure on the way into Karting, which wasn’t pleasant, at around 6am. The rear snapped away and I did well to keep the car out of the wall and get back to the pits.”
The provisional P1 podium remained settled, albeit #3 was going for a podium or bust. At three laps down on the #11 SMP, they had no realistic prospect of doing so unless SMP encountered its own problems but they were pushing hard. SMP were having the least troubled race however, because the #3 had yet further problems in the 19th hour with a brake failure for Berthon, dropping back to last of the P1 runners behind the #1 Rebellion with two lengthy pitstops attempting to resolve it.
This led to a full-course yellow just before 10am, when Mike Conway needed fuel, so he took his splash but had to pit again under the green flag to take the rest. On his way back round he set the fastest second and third sectors of the race so far and so it seemed the #7 crew had everything in hand to preserve a lead over Buemi that was now nearly two minutes. Conway acknowledged that #8 was pushing hard, so he had to do likewise, albeit without using too much kerb to help preserve the car. His driving duties for the season were done and dusted by 10:40am.
With the GTE Pro battle having been so finely balanced between its top four cars, there was a pervading sense that this one wasn’t over yet, and so it would prove.
An accident for the Racing Team Nederland LMP2 Dallara threw the race out of balance in the 21st hour as the out-of-sequence ‘leading’ #63 Corvette (below) was held at the pit exit having completed its routine fuel stop. On a different fuel strategy to the rest of the GTE Pro front runners, three minutes and three places were lost.
Mike Rockenfeller had gained in the car through an earlier SC procedure, but the give-and-take nature of the system had swung away from the Corvette just as a win for its surviving car seemed like a possibility. To make matters worse, Magnussen had taken over and clipped a kerb on cold tyres at the Porsche Curves at the restart, effectively ending the Corvette’s impressive charge and control of its race since its very beginning. Front splitter damage was fixed at its garage, Magnussen rejoining in eighth place, well out of contention.
But that’s the nature of this epic but cruel race, which now presents an advantage to the #51 AF Corse Ferrari, which has been fighting hard at the front throughout the night. With three hours to go a one minute and 25-second lead is sensed by Porsche as an opportunity, sending Lietz and Tandy on a charge, particularly the British driver in the #93 car, for whom this kind of situation is particularly appetising, already chasing down the #91 car at a second a lap.
Should trouble befall anyone as the pressure increases there is an entire entry of Ford GTs less than a minute back down the road. Dirk Muller at the spearhead is lapping the black-liveried #66 car well into the low 3:51s.
In GTE Am, Ben Keating (above) is trying to complete his minimum seat time despite appearing to be almost permanently in the car in the hours around dawn. Despite a close inspection of the concrete wall at the restart after the Safety Car, the #85 Ford GT still holds the best part of three minutes’ cushion over Patrick Lindsey in the Team Project 1 Porsche, which if it continues this way will take the GTE Am Team Trophy, with Lindsey, Bergmeister and Perfetti becoming GTE Am Driver Champions.