Le Mans 2018: update at midnight

Midnight at Le Mans. So far – so far – it’s been a perfect race for Toyota Gazoo Racing (if anything is going to tempt fate, it’s saying that!). The pair of TS050 HYBRIDs have been circulating just seconds apart through the evening, although the #7 car has opened a half-minute lead over the sister #8 after a heroic effort from Kamui Kobayashi. As we write, Sebastian Buemi has returned to the cockpit of #8 and is attempting to claw back the deficit.

Whatever we might think about Toyota ‘managing’ this race, in which it has no serious opposition, the two cars are absolutely not cruising in a glorified parade. The pace is unrelenting, both line-ups knowing full well they each need to be the one holding the advantage later in the race when surely the call will come for the team to hold station. And that’s not forgetting that fate can throw a spanner in the works for both. This race can still bite, despite Toyota’s dominance – as the team knows from all too bitter experience.

But what will Toyota do if the cars do run trouble-free? Cynics have been saying all week that Fernando Alonso is ‘destined’ to win this race, to ensure maximum column inches (and SEO-friendly web pages) for the manufacturer that is so desperate to end its 30 years of hurt at Le Mans. The man himself lived up to expectations with his first race stints and led the race in #8. But currently the cars are running in the ‘wrong’ order. At this still early stage (we’re not yet at the half-way mark), we wonder: if #7 continues to lead into the morning and tomorrow afternoon, will Toyota’s hierarchy make the dreaded call and hold it back to change the order? Only time will tell.

The battle for the best of the rest has sadly lost some of its steam after SMP Racing’s challenge skated off in a terrifying high-speed spin at the Porsche Curves which ended up in the barriers. Poor Matevos Isaakyan looked distraught after backing his BR1 into the barriers at the first right-hander. The incident has left Rebellion’s pair of R13s secure in third and fourth places. All they can do now is keep going – and hope the wheels come off Toyota’s hybrid train.

Jenson Button in the second SMP entry has impressed, despite starting his stint 60th and bog last after his car’s long delays early in the race. The charismatic former F1 champ posted the tweet of the race following his debut stints at Le Mans. “Eyes still wide open 50 minutes after getting out of the car, that’s what a 3hr 40min stint will do, I guess!” he tweeted. The car has no hope of a decent result, but the place has clearly made an impression on Button, nevertheless. Let’s hope he returns for another shot next year.

In LMP2, G-Drive appears to have this race in a stranglehold, but as we’ve seen so many times before that can all change in an instant. As it stands, G-Drive’s #26 ORECA, led by former Toro Rosso F1 ace Jean-Eric Vergne, has a clear lead. The #23 Panis-Barthez Dallara is second ahead of the class pole-winning IDEC ORECA.

Another former grand prix star discovered how Le Mans can bite during his first LMP2 stint. Juan Pablo Montoya had been enjoying himself in United Autosport’s Dallara – until he stuffed it at, of all places, Indianapolis. The two-time Indy 500 winner self-deprecatingly said he’d “run out of talent” during the incident, although the car is still in the race.

GTE has entertained throughout the race, although right now Porsche has the class in its grip. The ‘Pink Pig’ retro-liveried #92 car continues to lead a Stuttgart 1-2-3, with BMW’s new M8 showing a good turn of pace on its Le Mans debut.

Porsche also leads GTE Am thanks to the Dempsey-Proton 911, ahead of the #84 Ferrari which includes former Renault and Jordan grand prix winner Giancarlo Fisichella among its line-up.

Only nine of the 24 hours have passed. This race can still have a sting in its tail. Everyone at Toyota Gazoo Racing will be hoping that absolutely won’t be the case this year.