With one hour remaining, the Toyota #8 TS050 is closing in on a very special Le Mans achievement. With a 6 lap advantage over the pair of duelling Rebellion R13’s, Buemi, Nakajima and the #8 crew are closing in on a hat-trick of Le Mans victories. This could be the first hat-trick for a pair of drivers since Audi’s three-peat from 2000 to 2002 with drivers Tom Kristensen, Frank Biela, and this year’s Grand Marshal Emanuele Pirro.
Brendon Hartley, not to be left out, could join an exclusive club of drivers to win overall at Le Mans with two manufacturers in the LMP1 era. Members of that club currently include Mr Le Mans Tom Kristensen (Audi ‘00-’02, ‘04, ‘05, ‘08, ‘13; Bentley ‘03), Rinaldo Capello (Bentley ‘03, Audi ‘04), and Hartley’s Porsche LMP1 stablemates Romain Dumas (Audi ‘10, Porsche ‘16) and Timo Bernhard (Audi ‘10, Porsche ‘17). Quite a talented group!
After some minor tension overnight with puffs of smoke observed coming from the #8 car, the TS050 has run flawlessly and looks likely to take a third straight victory for Toyota.
The squabble over second between the two Rebellion R13’s has swung towards the #1 car, with Gustavo Menezes executing the overcut on the sister car through the pit sequence. With 2 hours and 20 minutes remaining, the #3 car came into the pits, but Louis Deletraz had difficulty launching the #3 out of the pit bay. A 20 second loss trying to restart the car was enough for the #1 to take the position; Norman Nato now bringing that car home.
It was looking like a double podium for the Rebellion team until 5 minutes before the turn of the last hour. A wide moment at Indianapolis for Deletraz in the #3 R13 saw him brush the wall on driver’s right, requiring a pit stop to change both front and rear bodywork. The struggle with the clutch compounding issues, as the #3 refused to launch in the pits, forcing it to be pulled into the garage.
There is also concern that the #3 could be under investigation for a pit lane infringement, with the wheels spinning as the car was lifted onto the dolly jacks to get pulled into the garage.
This has allowed the #7 Toyota TS050 to step into the podium positions, and has championship ramifications for the FIAWEC. The double points awarded at Le Mans will significantly close the gap between the two Toyotas heading into Bahrain, so every position the #7 can recover is paramount with an eye to Bahrain in two months time.
There is a sense of nervousness appearing at United Autosports, with a message to watch engine temperatures relayed to Paul Di Resta behind the wheel of the leading #22 car with just under two hours left. Luckily for the #22 team, they have the luxury of almost two minutes lead over the #38 JOTA Sport Oreca, who hasn’t been able to make major inroads to the gap that United have grown over the second half of the race.
The #26 G-Drive Aurus still holds third, a compelling recovery for the team that had lost two laps due to a throttle sensor issue overnight.
Panis Racing still holds fourth, while the battle for 5th between Signatech Alpine and So24-Has by Graff is heating up, as both teams make their plays for the end of the race. The gap with one hour left sits at 6 seconds, with Thomas Laurent in the #36 car holding the position. The question as we enter the last hour is whether or not the #36 Alpine can get to the end with only one stop, and can it do so without losing the 6 second gap it currently holds?
IDEC still holds 7th, while Cool Racing’s charge through the field has been halted by an extended pit stop; brake problems necessitating a change, dropping the #42 Oreca away from challenging further up the grid. They maintain their 8th position, but the gap to the battle for 9th between Algarve Pro #25 and the #50 Richard Mille Racing Oreca has been significantly reduced. Those positions have swapped approaching the finish, with Matt McMurray passing Baitske Visser approaching the Porsche Curves for 9th place with 90 minutes remaining.
Astons close in on GTE class victories
With over a minute’s advantage to the #51 Ferrari, Aston Martin Racing’s #97 car was well poised for a long-awaited class win and the first victory at La Sarthe with the ‘new’ Vantage AMR. Any chance of victory at Le Mans under threat until the chequered flag however, a steady hold on the race was the best status for the Aston Martin team, still running first and third as the final hour clicked in.
James Calado strapped into the #51 AF Corse Ferrari, the chance to defend last year’s Le Mans crown remained. Matching Alex Lynn’s sector times, the Ferrari was expected to assume the class lead temporarily as the #97 car would pit for the last time, but then require a late splash of fuel.
Marco Sorensen now back at the helm of the #95 car, the status quo resumed. Aston Martin reported that the #97 car would complete the 24-hour race without needing a brake change, a significant landmark for the development of GTE machinery.
Davide Rigon still pressed on in fourth, consistent 3:52’s for the #71 Ferrari matching those of the lead Aston Martin. Olivier Pla now installed in the Risi Ferrari the honour of class consistency was returned, the French driver running 26th overall and just out of the clutches of the Am leading TF Sport Aston Martin.
The leading TF Sport Aston Martin retains its class lead and although lap times have eased Charlie Eastwood had been among the GTE-Pro runners, passing the Risi Competizione Ferrari and 25th overall.
Matteo Cairoli was still maintaining typically strong stints in the #56 Mentos liveried Porsche in second, gapping the third placed Dempsey-Proton #77 car at nearly half a minute.
Tom Ferrier’s team would take the WEC Teams Championship lead should the car deliver the win ahead of AF Corse, currently running fourth in the hands of Nic Nielsen.
A special note at this point for Gulf Racing: running fifth in class with Ben Barker at the wheel, this was a well deserved position for the plucky British team that had run hard and consistently throughout this year’s event.