Toyota Lead The Way At Quarter Distance

The #7 Toyota TS050 has led the way in the opening six hours of the Le Mans 24 Hours, with Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez not relinquishing their lead throughout the opening stages.

Making a quick getaway from pole position, the sister #8 couldn’t challenge from second as Sebastien Buemi found himself briefly relegated to third by a hard-charging Gustavo Menezes in the #3 Rebellion Racing R13. Menezes had a straight-line speed advantage over the Toyota, but Buemi’s acceleration out of the corners allowed him to quickly nip back up into second. By that point, though, Conway had powered off into the distance and was adding chunks of time to his advantage every lap as the #8 struggled for pace around the Circuit De La Sarthe. Throughout the opening quarter of the race, the front of the field continued much in that fashion with the #7’s lead ever so slightly decreasing as Fernando Alonso – in the #8 as the first six hours reached its conclusion – started to eat into the deficit.

As 9pm local time came up on the clocks, the #7’s lead is down to 22 seconds as the field bunches up under a safety car following a crash for Marcel Fassler in the #64 Corvette Racing C7.R at the Porsche Curves. The American car went off after receiving contact from the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche which has been having a race to forget after an early spin from the lead of GTE Am while Satoshi Hoshino was behind the wheel. With the Toyotas comprehensively in the lead, albeit with the #7 extending its advantage over the #8, the focus of the LMP1 class fell to the captivating battle for third between the #3 Rebellion and the #11 SMP Racing BR1.

For the majority of the opening quarter, third belonged to the Swiss team but throughout his stint Stoffel Vandoorne in the Russian car was gradually looming ever larger in Nathaniel Berthon’s mirrors. The eventual move didn’t come on track. A slow stop for the #3 as Berthon handed the car over to Thomas Laurent allowed Vandoorne to power past before making his own handover to Mikhail Aleshin. A slick stop from SMP allowed the #11 to swoop out ahead.

However, just as the six-hour mark was reached Laurent had a better restart after the safety car – to recover the stricken Corvette – came back in. Tucking himself underneath the rear-wing of the BR1 coming out of a slow zone at the second chicane on the Mulsanne Straight, Laurent was all over the back of Aleshin, eventually making his move at the Porsche Curves. Fifth is currently safely in the hands of the second SMP car, which has a two-lap advantage over the #1 Rebellion which lost time in the opening hour with a puncture.

A frenetic LMP2 battle currently has Signatech Alpine leading the way after a mega back-and-forth battle between the French team and G-Drive Racing in the last couple of hours which has seen the crews swapping the top spot on a number of occasions. With strategies roughly similar, the action has been taking place out on track with Job Van Uitert fending off the advances of fellow Silver – but less experienced – Pierre Thiriet during the pair’s respective stints. The Dutchman’s hard work was undone though, as the team was slapped with a ten-second penalty for speeding under a Full Course Yellow. The additional delay handed Signatech the lead, but that seemingly fired up Roman Rusinov – who took over from Van Uitert – as he bridged the gap and retook the top spot in class. However, that changed again just before the end of the sixth hour as Andre Negrao stuck his elbows out and muscled his way past Rusinov at the second Mulsanne chicane.

Third was held by the DragonSpeed entry with Pastor Maldonado finding his way past the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca – which had pitted just before a full course yellow was called to recover the stricken Spirit of Race Ferrari as Francesco Castellacci had a wild spin at the Porsche Curves and beached the 488 in the gravel. With its rivals able to pit under the caution, the #38 dropped from third to fourth.

The GTE Pro battle has been a merry-go-round for most of the opening quarter as a number of teams have taken stints at the head of the field. The pole-sitting #95 Aston Martin Racing Vantage started by Nicki Thiim found itself quickly relegated to second as Antonio Garcia powered the #63 Corvette up the field in the opening hour and into a lead he retained for a significant chunk of the running as the American muscle car proved it had the speed at Le Mans. However, as the race went into the evening, the Porsche GT Team showed its hand with the #92 and #93 Porsche 911 RSRs moving to the fore as Laurens Vanthoor and Nick Tandy – normally team-mates in IMSA competition – squabbled between themselves for the lead. Despite Daniel Serra briefly taking the lead in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari just before the safety car was called to recover Fassler’s C7.R, he ended the sixth hour in second as Kevin Estre – who took over from Tandy – reclaimed the lead as the pitstops started to cycle through. The sole Corvette – taken over again by Garcia – currently runs in third, with the #67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT of Harry Tincknell in fourth.

GTE Am continued to be dominated by the Keating Motorsport Ford GT as Felipe Fraga and Jeroen Bleekemolen did a great job to power the Blue Oval up through the class and into a commanding lead. Thanks to a clean run, they have a three-minute lead over the #84 JMW Motorsports Ferrari. Third is the #56 Team Project 1 Porsche with the WeatherTech Racing 488 further back in fourth.