As the sun has set over Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France, the #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Hybrid of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, and Kazuki Nakajima leads the 88th running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance after six hours and the first Safety Car intervention of the race, ahead of their teammates in the #7 Toyota, the trio of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and José María López.
The #7 and #8 have alternated the lead as they continue to run on separate pit strategies, but the pace of Conway and Kobayashi helped to pull out a significant margin through the first five hours of the race. After a two and a half hour shift for Kobayashi, the Japanese driver got out of the car, and now Argentine driver López is installed in the leading Toyota at the six hour mark.
After the fifth hour, the gap between the two Toyotas was down to just 38 seconds. But on their ninth pit stop that saw Hartley swapped out for Nakajima in the #8 Toyota, a mechanic had to take time to clear up a blockage in the right-front brake duct, costing them a good portion of the time they’d gained.
But for the most part, Toyota has enjoyed a race free of any major dramas in the first quarter. It’s easy to forget after back-to-back Le Mans overall victories, but Toyota are deeply aware that Le Mans cannot be won going into Saturday night.
The first Safety Car intervention was called 5 hours, 45 minutes into the race after the #52 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE of Alexander West crashed driver-side first into the barrier at the Porsche Curves. Under this Safety Car, the #7 Toyota took on an extra fuel stop to top off the tank, promoting the #8 Toyota back into the race lead.
Both Toyotas have completed 100 laps and are 10.1 seconds apart in the same Safety Car queue.
Trailing the two Toyotas by 2 laps, the #1 Rebellion Racing R13-Gibson (Bruno Senna, Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato) runs third with Nato at the wheel, ahead of the #3 Rebellion-Gibson (Nathanaël Berthon, Romain Dumas, Louis Delétraz) in fourth. In the #3, Delétraz is doing his first real life laps at Le Mans after winning the Virtual running in June – but hopes of a Virtual/Real World double are fading. Both cars also pitted during the Safety Car intervention, but are running in different Safety Car queues.
After the alternator issue that popped up towards the end of the third hour, the #4 ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01-Gibson is still out on track – but now running 9 laps off the lead in 25th overall. Bruno Spengler is now at the wheel for his first stint at Le Mans.
Jackie Chan DC Racing – and Goodyear tyres – lead the LMP2 class after six hours of racing. With 95 laps completed, the #37 JC/DC Oreca 07, now being driven by a healthy Gabriel Aubry after taking over from Ho-Pin Tung, has been running off-sequence with most of the leaders. They’ve made 10 pit stops while their nearest rivals have made 9 stops.
Aubry, Tung, and Will Stevens are ahead of the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus 01, now being driven by Jean-Éric Vergne for the second time after stints from Roman Rusinov and Mikkel Jensen. The safety car has now brought them within 3.5 seconds of the lead. Third place is the #32 United Autosports Oreca, now driven by Will Owen, and the top three are all in the same Safety Car queue, covered by 12 seconds.
The next group of four includes the #38 JOTA Sport Oreca (Anthony Davidson) in fourth, the #31 Panis Racing Oreca (Matthieu Vaxiviére) in fifth, the #30 Duqueine Team Oreca (Tristan Gommendy) in sixth, and the #22 United Autosport Oreca (Filipe Albuquerque) in seventh.
In Hour 4, A second Slow Zone intervention was required to clear up debris after the #16 G-Drive by Algarve Pro Aurus 01 of Nick Tandy collided with the #24 Nielsen Racing Oreca on the pit straight.
In this same Slow Zone, the #39 SO24-Graff Racing Oreca struck misfortune when Vincent Capillaire spun it at Tetre Rouge, and got stuck in the gravel just enough to lose several positions and drop out of the lead battle. The #39 SO24-Graff car is now 8th in class, one lap off the lead.
The #16 G-Drive/Algarve car also came into grief early in Hour 5 – this time Ryan Cullen was at the wheel when he collided with the #57 Team Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR out of Indianapolis. Mark Patterson had to stand on the brakes to avoid ploughing into the spinning cars out of Indianapolis.
Nobuya Yamanaka’s struggles in the #35 Eurasia Motorsport Ligier JSP217 continued when he went off in the gravel at Arnage corner, bringing out another slow zone just before the 5 hour mark, but they’re still buried down the order in LMP2.
And after 75 laps, High Class Racing’s bid for the LMP2 win has taken a major blow as their #33 Oreca went to the garage with a gearbox problem during Anders Fjördbach’s first stint, and then went back into the garage after just two more laps on track. It’s a major shame, following Kenta Yamashita’s sterling opening stint that had him in the lead fight.
Completing the top ten as they were classified after six hours are the #21 DragonSpeed USA Oreca (Juan Pablo Montoya, Timothé Buret, Memo Rojas) in ninth, and we can now report that the #50 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca of Tatiana Calderón, Sophia Flörsch, and Beitske Visser is now inside the top ten.
Further back, the #36 Signatech Alpine A470 has clawed its way back into the top 15 (14th in class) but hopes of a hat track of LMP2 wins are looking slim to none as they sit 2 laps off the lead.
Advantage AF Corse in Pro
AF Corse have asserted a small advantage at this first quarter mark of the 24 Hours. The #71 Ferrari currently leads under the safety in the hands of Davide Rigon, the #51 car back in the hands of James Calado in second place. Alex Lynn’s #97 Aston Martin Vantage AMR is third, these three behind the same Safety Car. Nicky Thiim is fourth for Aston Martin, the #95 car behind the next Safety Car.
The Aston Martin pairing showed well at the front but had started to lose vital tyre performance as temperatures started to drop. Having taken the softer tyre earlier than the Aston Martins, Sam Bird’s installation saw his #71 Ferrari into a solid lead in the fourth hour.
Harry Tincknell’s stint in the #97 Aston Martin gave us a typical GTE-Pro drag-race, defending second position hard for several laps from Daniel Serra’s #51 AF Corse car before a Ferrari 1-2 was established at Mulsanne Corner under braking.
Although the Vantages’ tyre performance was hanging on, Tincknell back into the lead after pit stops, he had to give best to Miguel Molina’s pressure as the Aston Martin oversteered into the first chicane. The #71 Ferrari seized the opportunity and although Tincknell pushed back the Ferrari’s advantage was enough to finally consolidate a lead. Daniel Serra’s #51 Ferrari had closed on the battle in the process soon and made it a 1-2 again for the AF Corse operation.
Porsche’s race took its first hit, the #92 car into the pits with a power steering issue on its 66th lap, dropping the car out of contention four and a half hours in. The car would rejoin 12 laps off the lead of the class.
Aston Martin fortunes were better in GTE-Am as the field went under Full Course Yellow.
Paul Dalla Lana is back aboard the leading #98 Aston Martin Racing entry, ahead of the red #90 TF Sport entry of Salih Yoluc, these two inheriting a steady 1-2 in class.
The GTE-Am category had previously seen a significant state of flux though. Emanuele Collard had stayed aboard the #83 AF Corse Ferrari to lead during hour 4, building a cushion from Tom Blomqvist, who had been pushing hard in the out-of-sequence #72 Hub Auto Racing Ferrari (the car had taken a quick extra pit stop early in the race). Egidio Perfetti’s #56 Project 1 Porsche had settled into third at this point.
Jonny Adam was pushing hard in his first stint in the #90 TF Sport car to close the gap to the leaders and start the red Aston Martin’s attack.
After the next round of stops, Augusto Farfus had taken over from Paul Dalla Lana in the #98 Vantage AMR and was leading in a closely grouped ‘Am field, but was soon hauled in and passed by 2017’s GTE-Pro winner, Jonny Adam taking the lead as Farfus headed to the pits.
Project 1 wasn’t having the greatest start to its 24 hours. Having returned the #88 entry to the race, its Wynns liveried Porsche headed to the garage with frontal damage sustained while punting the spun G-Drive LMP2 car on the run to Arnage through no fault of its own. Ben Keating climbed aboard the distinctive #57 car for his first race stint, returning it to the fray several laps down. Perfetti’s Project 1 Porsche that had run in second picked up a stop/go penalty for a pitlane speed infringement, the #56 entry rejoining in the GTE-Am midfield, but then handed a further penalty for speeding in a slow zone, losing the car a further minute.
As the light began to fade, Antonio Farfus steadily clawed into Jonny Adam’s lead. The ex-BMW factory driver made the pass on the Mulsanne, the Aston Martin 1-2 looking strong as Paul Dalla Lana climbed back aboard.
The #52 AF Corse Ferrari brought out the race’s first Safety Car as the sixth hour closed. Alex West lost the Ferrari in the Porsche Curves, spinning into the barrier and sustaining terminal left side damage.
A feature of the churning GTE-Am top ten, Duncan Cameron looped the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari under braking into the Dunlop chicane. Limping the car back to the pits and dropping debris, damage was visible to the front left tyre and rear left wheel arch. Matt Griffin commented that it was effectively the end of the car’s race, and that a prototype had made contact. The team repaired the car, sending it back out into the race, but would soon return it to its garage though and into retirement.