Text: Steve Tarrant
Photos: Rick Kiewiet
"It always rains in Le Mans!"
And so the first curveball was thrown into the mix. Not since 2016 has the race started in wet conditions, where we lost nearly the whole of the first hour while waiting for the course to be in a suitable condition for racing. Fingers were crossed that we were not going to have a repeat.
The first strange moment was for the High Class racing entry #20, where the car was left in the raised position, to resolve a stalled engine. The problem was soon resolved, but meant they would start from the back of the field. And Tommy Milner reported his Corvette was struck from behind by a Ferrari when just leaving the grid.
The clock was started at the end of the first formation lap, when John Elkann waved the French flag, but the field remained behind the pace car, driven by Derek Bell, for a couple of extra laps to help everyone acclimatise to the conditions. And so 13 minutes late, the cars received the green flag.
Chaos ensued, with spinners everywhere, the highest profile victims being the #8 Toyota hit by the #708 Glickenhaus on the entry to the Dunlop chicane, the class leading #72 HubAuto Racing Porsche, and, yet again, the #48 IDEC Sport going into the gravel at the second chicane. And many others all around the track too, with cold tyres, low grip and angry drivers. The #36 Alpine was running in second when Nicolas Lapiere lost control out of Indianapolis, and had to wait for a large enough gap to reverse across the track. All this gave the #7 Toyota of Mike Conway the biggest birthday present possible with a 33 second lead after just thirty minutes.
The rain soon stopped, and after 45 minutes the first tentative pitstops for dry tyres occurred to try and take advantage of a drying racing line. Once all the stops had been completed where the brave stopped early and the cautious went longer, it was the #7 Toyota, ahead of the #38 (leading LMP2) and the #8 Toyota, who headed the field at the top of the first hour. Corvette #64 headed the GTE Pro field ahead of the #52 AF Corse, while in the Am category it was the #83 AF Corse Ferrari with a ten second lead ahead of a pack of Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin.
The race then finally settled down on a drying track, with lap times settling for the lead cars around the 3:30 pace, and the Hypercars of Toyota and Alpine moved to the head of the field. The Glickenhaus had both dropped back, the #708 serving a ten second penalty in addition to having a new nose fitted at its first stop, while the #709 spun at the Ford chicane, caught out when conditions were changing.
After two hours, the pair of AF Corse Ferraris, #51 and #52, were leading in GTE Pro, swapping places while drafting each other along, and building up a seven second lead over Earl Bamber in the #79 WeatherTech Porsche. Aston Martin fans were pleased also, with the #33 TF Sport car running ahead of the #98 car, and the #95 Aston running fourth, chasing the #83 AF Corse Ferrari.
Reports soon surfaced of punctures starting to cause issues, the #7 Toyota reportedly having two, and one for the #8 car, and the #71 Ferrari had one while going through the Porsche Curves. And then the rain came back, initially covering the section from start line to Tertre Rouge and causing more spins.
An unfortunate victim of the light rain was the #84 Association SRT car, which had done 3 stints with Matthieu Lahaye at the wheel, and had just undertaken their first driver change to Takuma Aoki, when he spun at the Dunlop chicane, and that required the extraction Manitou to recover the car before it could get back underway. A further incident occurred when the #18 Absolute Racing Porsche spun and left the track approaching Dunlop, and Anthony Davidson, the class leader in the JOTA Sport, went off at very high speed in avoidance, almost reaching the barrier before the gravel arrested his progress. The recovery would lose him a lap to the class leaders, the #26 G-Drive car assuming the lead.
Back to a dry but greasy track, the pace settled back to the 3:30 time, and the Hypercars of Toyota and Alpine marched to the fore. However, the Glickenhaus cars appeared to be losing between two to five seconds a lap, raising speculation as to whether the car didn't have the anticipated speed, or whether they were running a conservative pace.
Not running conservatively was Brendon Hartley in the #8 Toyota who set some blistering laps in the 3:27 range in their chase of the #7 car while recovering from the problems at the start.
Darkness came an hour earlier than would normally be the case in June and with it also came the next shower of rain. Sadly, this would cause a number of serious crashes simultaneously, the first involved the #29 Racing Team Nederland which spun into the gravel at Porsche, the second involving initially the #26 and the #1 Richard Mille car, leaving the #1 broadside across the track where it was then subsequently hit by the #74 Racing Team India Eurasia car approaching the Porsche Curves, and another which involved the #32 and #23 of the United Autosport cars when the #23 lost control when braking into Dunlop, spinning across the gravel and striking the #32.
The G-meter on the #1 car was triggered as a result of the second hit with the #74, which resulted in the instant retirement of the all female crew, and the extraction team being needed to assist Sophia Floersch from the car. A sad end to a reliable run throughout the week.
The #32 was also registered as a retirement, the car too badly damaged to be repaired.
The safety cars came in some twenty minutes later, but by then, the Toyotas had put the Alpine a lap behind. In LMP2, the cars of #65 Panis Racing, #22 United Autosport, and #41 WRT racing restarted just seconds apart.
Meanwhile in GTE Pro, the AF Corse Ferraris had escaped the clutches of the pursuers, putting two minutes between them and the #92 Porsche, and in Am, the #33 TF Sport had an eighty second lead over a trio of Ferraris.
Positions after 6 hours