Eight hours remain in the 87th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours, the sun is fully up, and although fully one-third of the distance remains, the end is almost in sight.
With the race running metronomically, and after an hour featuring few incidents and notable moves, it’s a good time to step back and take a look at what we’ve seen so far from each class in the opening 16 hours.
LMP1, unsurprisingly, is going to way of Toyota. It’s been tight between the No. 7 and No. 8 TS050 HYBRIDs for much of the race, but it is turning into the No. 7 crew’s day. Jose Maria Lopez is now more than two minutes ahead of Kazuki Nakajima in the No. 8. There have been tussles between the two, but it’s never felt like a true race between the Japanese marque’s contenders; the gaps managed with military precision at times by the team.
Behind, the privateer fight has in many ways delivered here. It’s swung like a pendulum between SMP Racing and Rebellion Racing at various points, and right now, it appears that the No. 3 Rebellion is on for the final podium spot. Thomas Laurent leads the sole remaining SMP Racing BR1 of Vitaly Petrov by almost two minutes. But it’s not over yet.
LMP2? Well it’s turned into a titanic battle between G-Drive Racing’s Aurus and the Signatech Alpine A470, and it’s felt like a real rivalry has been brewing between these two, as well as Dunlop and Michelin. In this case Alpine (running Michelins) has more to play for than just the Le Mans win, as Nicolas Lapierre, Pierre Thiriet and Andre Negrao have an LMP2 title to think about. And as it stands, they’d take that title with a second-place finish.
Their closest rivals in the points are close behind though, with the No.38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA just 36s back. Sometimes in a 24 hour race, you get a sense when things aren’t quite settled with the hours winding down, and it feels here like LMP2 has another twist still to come.
As a side note, the sister No, 37 JCDC ORECA was confirmed as a retirement during the hour due to gearbox problems after a valiant effort from Ricky Taylor, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jordan King, who’d kept the car in podium contention.
GTE Pro has been another class that’s delivered. Currently we have four marques with a chance of winning, and the top seven within 90 seconds of each other. There’s been no margin for error, and we didn’t for one second suspect that wouldn’t be the case. Unlike last year, the safety cars haven’t split up the front-runners, so it’s a proper, flat-out fight.
It’s ebbing and flowing between the factory teams as the conditions change. Right now, AF Corse’s sole remaining No. 51 Ferrari leads, ahead of the No. 91 Porsche which is fighting for the GTE Pro drivers’ title, the No. 63 Corvette Racing C7.R (by just 5s) and No. 93 Porsche. Three of the four Fords are still in this, and are running in formation, from fifth to seventh. The IMSA-crewed No. 68 now leads the ‘Blue Oval’s’ charge in its final GTE Pro race as a factory here at La Sarthe.
Finally, we have AM. Keating Motorsports has grabbed this one by the horns, its Ford GT running faultlessly, and crucially, quickly, to this point. Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Felipe Fraga have been superb. If they can keep it clean they will win this race, as they have almost a lap lead.
Team Project 1 won’t mind following the Keating Ford home in second too much, as if the race finished now, Patrick Lindsey, Jorg Bergmeister and Egidio Perfetti would be champions in Am with a podium finish.
JMW’s Ferrari, which like the Keating Ford is a guest car and not fighting for points, is third. It’s been a strong run for the ‘Pirelli World Challenge all-star team’ of Wei Lu, Jeff Segal and Rodrigo Baptista. A couple of errors have caused them to fall back somewhat, but a podium finish here would still be a huge achievement.
Quietly, Clearwater Racing, in its final WEC outing, has crept up to fourth in class, ahead of the No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche, which is on a recovery drive after its repairs during the night hours.
As Hour 16 wound down, GTE Am was the class that provided action. Gulf Racing’s Mike Wainwright ended up in the barriers at Indianapolis, at the same time as the No. 60 Kessel Ferrari of Sergio Pianezzola ended up in the gravel at the Porsche Curves. Neither car was in the fight for a podium spot, but these slip-ups did cause an FCY, which could have ripple effects elsewhere.
In Pro, there was a duel in the closing minutes, the Risi Competition Ferrari of Pipo Derani chasing Olivier Pla’s No. 66 Ford for ninth place in the class. It’s not a battle for a top spot, but it does mark progress for the privateer Risi squad, which has had a tough week getting to grips with its brand new chassis and band of relatively inexperienced (in GTE terms) drivers.