Toyota Gazoo Racing lead Le Mans in what is developing into a classic 24-hour endurance race at the Circuit de la Sarthe. At midnight, nine hours into the race, the #7 Toyota TS050 leads by just 9 seconds ahead of the sister car.
The Conway/Kobayashi/López-driven #7 TS050 had built up a significant buffer of around one minute in the early stages of the race with Mike Conway behind the wheel. However, the advantage shrunk around six hours into the race, as Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima appeared to find the right balance on their LMP1 hybrid machine.
The #8 crew were aided by pitting while a slow zone had been applied to recover a stricken GTE Am car. One lap later the slow zone had been cleared again, forcing the #7 car to pit under full-green conditions. The #8 snatched the lead away, but the subsequent gap created was negated again due to a safety car for a separate incident.
The battle between the two works hybrids continues to flip back and forth. As Saturday turned to Sunday, Mike Conway leads the race by just 8 seconds ahead of a hard-charging Sébastien Buemi in the #8.
The leading privateer car is the #17 SMP Racing BR01 of Sarrazin/Orudzhev/Sirotkin, which trails the leading factory cars by two laps. The sister #11 machine of Vandoorne/Petrov/Aleshin is just a handful of seconds behind in what has been a remarkably clean run so far.
Rebellion Racing, on the other hand, have had no such luck: Bruno Senna suffered a puncture in the early part of the race and lost roughly two laps on the other privateer cars. Thomas Laurent in the #3 machine was also forced into the pits for an unscheduled stop after losing the back end of his R13 Gibson under breaking and destroying its front section. However, some smart pit work by the Rebellion crew saw the car return to the track after just three minutes.
GTE Pro battle remains on a knife-edge
The GTE Pro class has also offered up some relentless racing over the first third of the race. The Pier Guidi/Serra/Calado #51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 leads at the eight-hour stage by just half a second ahead of the #92 Porsche 911 RSR of Michael Christensen, Kévin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor. Currently in third position is the #67 Ford GT.
The only major incident of the race so far befell the #64 Corvette C7.R. With Marcell Fässler behind the wheel, the US-entered GTE Pro car attempted to pass the #88 Porsche 911 RSR. Contact was made and Fässler was speared into the wall and retirement.
The resulting safety cars, of which there are three in operation at Le Mans, cut the GTE Pro field in two. However, the lead battle was mercifully kept behind the same safety car, enabling the nine-car fight to resume as soon as the track repairs had been completed.
The chasing pack, all within thirty seconds of the leader at midnight, includes the #63 Corvette, the #93 Porsche, the #91 Porsche and the #68 and #69 Fords.
Two-way fight in LMP2
The LMP2 class is led by the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus at midnight with young Dutch driver Job van Uitert behind the wheel. The Russian-entered squad have been engaged in a fascinating and, at times fractious, race-long battle with the #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut Alpine A470.
The two leading cars gained a gap on the rest of the P2 field through safety car deployment, but the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing and #31 DragonSpeed Orecas are leading the charge to make up the 90-second gap.
Keating Motorsports still ahead in GTE Am
The #85 Keating Motorsports Ford GT of Bleekemolen/Fraga/Keating leads the GTE Am class at midnight by 30 seconds ahead of the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR and the #84 JMW Ferrari 488.
Bronze-rated drivers, such as Ben Keating in the #85 machine, have to complete a minimum of six hours’ driving time, and so the remaining stint distribution among the GTE Am will play a key role in deciding who will walk away with the class victory.
Images (c) Adrenal Media / FIA WEC