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Toyota’s Race To Lose As LM24 Reaches Halfway Mark

71 AF Corse Ferrari hits trouble

It’s halftime at the 88th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 12 hours elapsed, 12 hours to go.

The #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Hybrid of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and José María López has led most of the race and still leads at the end of the twelfth hour. It’s Kobayashi who’s taken over for his second stint in the car, and this leading trio, looking to overcome their near-miss in 2019, have completed 191 laps around the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Running second is the #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, and Brendon Hartley. No more brake drama in the last three hours, and they’re still just one lap behind the other Toyota, with Hartley driving for the second time.

Both cars have been taking things one eleven-lap stint at a time, composed and confident as they tick down the laps in the dark of night. Even when they’ve not been lapping anywhere close to their ultimate pace from the very opening laps, both Toyotas are still overwhelming the two Rebellion Racing R13-Gibsons lap after lap. At the halfway point of last year’s race, the Conway/Kobayashi/López trio were leading their teammates Buemi, Nakajima, and Fernando Alonso, however the gap was a bit closer at 8.2 seconds.

Rebellion Racing’s two Oreca-designed R13-Gibsons are still running third and fourth, separated by one lap. The #1 Rebellion of Bruno Senna, Gustavo Menezes, and Norman Nato is running third. The #3 of Nathanaël Berthon, Romain Dumas, and Louis Déletraz is in fourth. It’s Menezes driving the #1, Dumas driving the #3.

Three cars have asserted themselves as the front-runningest of the front-runners in LMP2, and two are run by United Autosport: The #32 of Will Owen, Alex Brundle, and Job van Uitert, and the #22 of Phil Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque, and Paul di Resta. They’re in a fight with the #38 JOTA Sport car of Anthony Davidson, Antonio Felix da Costa, and Róberto Gonzalez. All three are Oreca 07s – much like the rest of the front-runners – with the two United cars on Michelins and the “Mighty ‘38” on Goodyears.

After 182 laps, the #32 of Owen leads the #22 of Di Resta in second, followed by the #38 now being driven by Gónzalez.

And after suffering a massive water leak on the opening lap of the race, rumours of the #36 Signatech Alpine A470’s demise have been dispelled after they’ve scratched and clawed their way back into the top ten in class.

It’s been a team effort from the Signatech crew, for drivers Pierre Ragues, Thomas Laurent, and André Negrão – who’ve been nearly-perfect in their recovery drive. Nearly, if not for a heart-stopping spin for Laurent at the Porsche Curves in the tenth hour – a mistake that rarely results from the car driving away unscathed, as Laurent did. Currently, Ragues has that car running eighth in class, 2-3 laps off the lead.

The #28 IDEC Sport Oreca of Paul-Loup Chatin, Richard Bradley, and Paul Lafargue, has had to overcome starting one lap down to work its way into tenth in LMP2, behind the #42 Cool Racing Oreca, driven by Nicolas Lapierre – who’s never lost in four LMP2 entries, but runs the risk of seeing that winning streak end by tomorrow afternoon. Also in this fight is the #50 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca, now being piloted by Tatiana Calderón.

The #31 Panis Racing Oreca (Matthieu Vaxivière) runs in fourth, one lap off the lead, the #39 SO24-Has by Graff Oreca (Charles Milesi) is fifth, two laps down – and despite losing power momentarily at the very dawn of this three-hour block, the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus 01 (Mikkel Jensen) is still clinging on to sixth place. Rusinov tried to keep the car out and fix the issue from the cockpit, before ultimately pitting in for repairs. They’re just ahead of the #27 DragonSpeed USA Oreca (Renger van der Zande), still in the top ten as the sister car #21 struggles with intermittent misfiring issues.

The best non-Oreca is still Cetilar Racing’s #47 Dallara P217, now driven by Giorgio Sernagiotto in 13th, but they’re just one lap ahead of the next-best non-Oreca, the #34 Inter Europol Competition Ligier JSP217 of current driver Matevos Isaakayan, Jakub Smiechowski, and René Binder, in 16th.

While the #26 G-Drive Aurus is still out on track, it’s a different story for the #16 G-Drive by Algarve Pro Racing Aurus of Ryan Cullen, Oliver Jarvis, and Nick Tandy, which retired in the tenth hour with terminal electrical failure. The #33 High Class Racing Oreca (Mark Patterson, Kenta Yamashita, Anders Fjördbach) is still in the garage, not officially retired as of publication but DSC Ed himself has effectively written the car’s chances of returning completely off.

Meanwhile, in the theatre of the mildly absurd, the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca of Will Stevens, Ho-Pin Tung, and Gabriel Aubry, already having been knocked out of contention for the race victory, has been disqualified from the race, violating Article 12.3.9 of the Supplementary Regulations.

According to the stewards’ official notice, when Aubry came to a stop during the race’s 2nd Safety Car intervention, he exited the car and phoned his team. A member of the team met the driver and supplied a component that the driver fitted to the car. During the hearing with the stewards, that team representative admitted to these facts, and stated that the car would not have been able to continue without this fix.

AF Corse down to one bullet

At the mid- point GTE-Pro had its first sense of a race settling down. Ferrari’s efforts had taken a knock with one of the AF Corse cars spending time in its garage, leaving last year’s winners James Calado, Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi leading the charge in the #51 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo. With Calado and Serra sharing most of the night stints so far, the car seemed to have enough of an edge to keep a narrow margin from the charging pair of Aston Martins as small differences in set up and tyres swung in their favour – for the moment.

Maxime Martin’s consistent pace was putting space between his leading #97 Aston Martin and Daniel Serra in the first of the chasing AF Corse Ferraris in the tenth hour, team mate Sam Bird trying hard to reduce his nearly 2 minutes deficit in third. The leader was within reach of lapping his team mate Marco Sorensen, circulating in a lonely fourth place.

With the #92 Porsche running in 48th position overall, 13 laps off the class lead, the #91 car’s one lap deficit seemed relatively competitive. But although Fred Makowiecki’s laps were consistent with the race pace further ahead, a significant incident seemed to be the only salvation now for an uncharacteristically disappointing Porsche showing.

At the end of the 11th hour, Sam Bird’s third place was lost as the AF Corse ‘Pro cars hit trouble for the first time. A right rear puncture had slowed the car on the Mulsanne straight, the English driver nursing the #71 car back to its pit so as to avoid further damage. Davide Rigon was installed as the car was wheeled back into its garage, hydraulic fluid evident as frantic brake repairs got underway.

Daniel Serra handed the leading Ferrari back to James Calado, but the #51 car now had Harry Tincknell’s Aston Martin in his mirrors. With the #71 car having lost laps in the pits, Ferrari honours now sat with last year’s class winners as the tyres came up to temperature and the English driver made the best of it to pull away, lapping in the 3:52’s. Richard Westbrook was now in charge of the third placed Aston Martin, though the #95 car was nearly a lap off the leading pair.

Fourth place in class was now with the Risi Competizione Ferrari. Having struggled for front running pace earlier on, the car was slowly benefiting from attrition elsewhere. A lap behind, but still a long way to go…

So far, so good for Aston Martin. A 1-2 looks reasonably comfortable for the moment, both cars on schedule and controlling the pace. Antonio Farfus leads in the #98 car by just a second from a charging and hungry Charlie Eastwood in the #90 TF Sport entry.

Ross Gunn stayed aboard the Aston Martin Racing Vantage to jump the TF Sport car for the lead in the tenth hour, Charlie Eastwood and Jonny Adam taking the lion’s share of the night driving.

Behind, the solid pace of AF Corse’s #83 car had steadily lifted the Ferrari up the order, Emmanuel Collard doing strong back-to-back stints, splitting the Aston Martins at one point before its out-of-sync status settled it back down the order. The car’s improvements though had lifted it slowly to a ‘net’ third place and the championship leading AF Corse car looked well poised.

Egidio Perfetti’s Mentos liveried Team Project 1 Porsche had been running third but Emmanuel Collard’s pace had steadily overhauled it – the best placed Porsche in the entire GTE entry running fourth in class.