Text: Rick Kiewiet
Images: FIA WEC / Adrenal Media
The 24 hours of Le Mans got underway and the first cards have been dealt. Heading into the late evening and night, rain is imminent. Leaders in class are the #7 Toyota in LMP1, currently driven by Mike Conway, the #32 United Autosports car in LMP2, driven by another Brit Alex Brundle, in GT Pro the #97 Aston Martin in the hands of Alex Lynn and the #83 AF Corse Ferrari leads in GT Am with Nicklas Nielsen behind the wheel.
The #7 Toyota in the hands of Mike Conway led the field towards the first corner after the start. Bruno Senna in the #1 Rebellion came close to an overtake, but realised just in time that a 24 hour race is not won in the first corner and abided. Surprisingly, the #8 Toyota driven by Seb Buemi could not get past the Rebellion in the early stages of the race. Senna showed impressive pace. After the second set of pit stops, the #8 Toyota took over the lead of the #7. Not much later, the #8 made an extra stop and handed the lead back over to the #7
The advantage of the Toyota became more and more clear: besides being generally faster over the lap, their drivetrain allows them to move through traffic more quickly, and the cars are more fuel efficient. They seem able to easily control the gap towards their followers, without stressing the cars too much. Rebellion does seem able to keep the Japanese cars on their toes, running into trouble can easily cost the Toyota's a place. Their fuel efficiency allows them to make a stop less every couple of cycles again, gaining them even more time.
After 6.5 hours, the 5th LMP1 contender after the Toyota's and Rebellions, the #4 ByKolles car, crashed in the Dunlop Curves due to what seemed a defect to the rear wing. Even though the car could eventually follow its way, this severely damaged the guardrails at that point calling for lengthy repairs and of course a Safety Car period. This was the second Safety Car of the race, after a crash of the #52 AF Corse Ferrari in the Porsche Curves 45 minutes earlier.
Almost near the end of the Safety Car fase, the #8 Toyota came into the pits unexpectedly and was pushed backwards into the garage. Some work was done on the right front brake but the car was back on track pretty quick. The #1 Rebellion did manage its way past, but Nakajima quickly found a way past and is now back in 2nd. He is more than a lap behind the leading #7 though.
The #22 United Autosports car retained its lead after the start and led through the early stages. Giedo van der Garde quickly overtook 2nd in the #29 Racing Team Nederland car from Jean-Eric Vergne in the #26 G-Drive, but ran into technical problems quickly. Two necessary pit stops to repair cooling system malfunctions dropped the car 2 laps behind. Another favorite in class, the #36 Signatech Alpine, had already been to the pits as well and also dropped way down the field.
After the first two hours, the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing car took over the lead of the #22 United Autosports after the latter had a difficult stint. The #39 Graff car was in 2nd for a good while, but spun off the track in the Porsche Curves, dropping it down the field. The #26 G-Drive took over 2nd. The #32 United Autosports and #38 Jota cars had jointly made their way up the field and were now 3rd and 4th. When the evening fell, the #26 had closed the gap towards the #37 in front, just before the second safety car phase, Vergne took over the lead. Things even got worse for the Jackie Chan car as Gabriel Aubry lost all power and even stopped the car on track, after which he still managed to get back to the pits. He hasn't come out since.
The Safety Car had brought the numbers 1, 2 and 3 in class, the #26 G-drive, #32 United Autosports and #38 Jota close together. Alex Brundle in the #32 managed to overtake Vergne and is now in the lead, not more than a second clear of the Frenchman. Positions constantly switch though, a winner has not yet been declared. Anthony Davidson in the #38 Jota is also only a second away. 5 seconds further back is Felipe Albuquerque in the other United Autosports car, the #22.
The battle for the lead in GT Pro is between Aston Martin and the AF Corse Ferrari's. The #97 Aston Martin of Alex Lynn, Harry Tincknell and Maxime Martin leads, and the #51 Ferrari of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra is only a second and a half behind. They have been close throughout the race. The #71 Ferrari is about a minute behind with the #95 Dane Train supplemented with Richard Westbrook not far away.
The two Porsches quickly dropped to last in class after the start, the #91 only led for half a lap after its Pole Position. Fifteen minutes later it was down to sixt. The #92 was seventh by that time. They haven't been able to recover since. An explanation could be that the cars from Stuttgart are setup for rain, which is currently expected for the late evening to early night. To make matters worse, a power steering failure forced the #92 in for lengthy repairs, causing it to now run 11 laps of the leader.
Currently the closest battle is in the GT Am class: The #83 AF Corse Ferrari with Nicklas Nielsen at the wheel is only half a second ahead of Charlie Eastwood in the #90 TF Sport Aston. Ross Gunn, in the Aston Martin Racing car is only 6 tenths further away. The #56 Project 1 Porsche is observing the battle for the lead from short distance, it follows at a second or 5.
Most breath-taking moment in the early stages of the race was when the #61 Luzich Ferrari spun in the run up towards the Dunlop Curve. The #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche, in his efforts to avoid the spinning Ferrari, dodged to the right, went of track, missed the #8 Toyota by a hair and crashed into the tires. Although thought to be retired (even confirmed by Porsche Motorsport), the #88 is running again, some 50 laps of the lead.