The 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans continues at a blinding pace, with the works LMP1 teams delivering a titanic battle for the overall lead of the race. At the halfway stage, Porsche leads from Audi – but that only tells half the story.
Hour 7 began in the same vein as the previous 6, with Mark Webber in the #17 Porsche 919 Hybrid duelling with Marcel Fässler in the #7 Audi R18 for the lead. A relatively long period of green-flag running caused the race to settle down somewhat at the sun set over the Circuit de la Sarthe. KCMG continued to lead LMP2 in their Oreca 05 Nissan with Richard Bradley performing admirably for the Asian team. GTE-Pro remained a topsy-turvy battle between the works Aston Martins and Corvettes, with the #97, #99 and #64 cars trading the lead as they made their pit stops.
As darkness fell, a flurry of incidents upset the rhythm of the race. Firstly Romain Dumas went straight on at Mulsanne Corner and made light contact with the barriers, but it was enough to force the #18 Porsche to pit and put it out of the immediate battle for the lead. Soon afterwards, the #36 Signatech Alpine of Paul Loup Chatin had a major incident at the same place, slamming against the barriers on the inside of the run down to Mulsanne and coming to rest in the gravel trap. The barrier damage necessitated a safety car period. Despite Chatin’s best efforts, he was unable to recover the Alpine, which became the race’s third official retirement.
As the safety car was withdrawn, there was drama in GTE-Pro, with the second-place #97 Aston Martin of Rob Bell pulling off at the side of the track with a mechanical fault. At the front of the field, the two Porsches of Nico Hülkenberg and Mark Webber threw any team orders out of the window and delivered a impressive battle for the lead. A pit stop for Hülkenberg left Webber free to fight it out with Marcel Fässler in the #7 Audi, but the Austrialian was subsequently given a one-minute stop/go penalty for overtaking under yellow flags.
The nighttime saw the #9 Audi of René Rast come to the fore, with the Le Mans rookie putting in an impressive stint at the head of the field to lead from Fässler. In fact, the German was consistently quicker than the Swiss Audi driver and was able to slowly eek out what became a significant lead. With ten hours in the book, things went from bad to worse for Nissan, whose GT-R LMs had been struggling for pace and with mechanical issues. However, the fact that all three cars were running as night fell can be deemed a success for the Japanese team. Unfortunately, the #21 car driven by Tsugio Matsuda suffered a problem with its right front tyre at Arnage and was unable to return back to the pits.
As Saturday turned to Sunday, Nico Hülkenberg handed the leading #19 Porsche over to Nick Tandy. The British driver soon showed everyone his true potential by putting in a stint of consistently fast lap times – including the car’s fastest lap of the race so far of 3:18.674. The chasing Audis of André Lotterer (#7) and Marco Bonanomi (#9) seemed unable to cope with the Porsche’s pace, and the #19 soon opened up a lead of a minute by the 12th hour of the race.
The halfway point also saw a titanic battle for the lead of GTE-Pro between the #99 Aston Martin of Fernando Rees and the #64 Corvette C7.R of Oliver Gavin. After twelve hours of racing, just 1 second separated the two and they were soon trading paintwork for the lead of the class. A Corvette pit stop cut the battle short, but it is sure to go for the rest of the race. As the twelfth hour came to a close, we saw the first chinks in KCMG’s armour with an unscheduled pit stop costing the team around a minute. It still enjoys a 1-minute lead over the second-place Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 and third-place G-Drive Racing machine.
In GTE-Am, the #98 Aston Martin of Lauda/Dalla Lana/Lamy continues to enjoy a comfortable lead over the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari F458 Italia. However, problems for the #83 Ferrari pushed the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche 911 RSR into third position, after platinum driver Pat Long had put in a monumental stint into the night.
Images: 24h LeMans Livestream