The battle for victory in the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours stepped up a notch as the sun rose over the Circuit de la Sarthe this morning, with Peugeot ramping up the pressure on the sole remaining – and long-time race-leading – Audi R18 TDi.
During a relatively quiet time of things through the small hours after the earlier dramas that had done for Audi's #3 and #1 contenders, the remaining #2 R18 and the #9 and #7 Peugeots were dragged together through a combination of circumstances, with rarely more than a minute to choose between the three cars – and at times, less than five seconds.
Entertaining on-track battles – on occasion almost too close for comfort – saw the advantage swing to-and-fro, and with just over a quarter of the race remaining, the leading #9 Peugeot of Simon Pagenaud, Benoît Tréluyer in the Audi, the lapped Stéphane Sarrazin in the #8 Peugeot and the #7 piloted by Alex Wurz ran practically nose-to-tail, the four cars blanketed by as little as four seconds.
Tréluyer looked the feistiest of the quartet as he crawled all over the rear of Pagenaud's Peugeot, darting about this way and that, whilst at the same time endeavouring to stave off the attentions of Sarrazin, who was eager to un-lap himself. Going through the Porsche Curves two laps in succession, the leading duo came perilously close to touching, with their fierce scrap allowing Wurz to home in behind, too.
Sarrazin was the first to successfully make a move in diving bravely past Tréluyer into the second Mulsanne Chicane, but the situation was reversed again when the former went to try to lap another car down the inside of the Porsche Curves and had to swiftly back out of it, as the superbly opportunistic Tréluyer swept right the way around the outside of both – a risk, yes, but a gutsy one, and one that paid off handsomely, with the pole-winner going on to snatch the lead from Pagenaud into the second Mulsanne Chicane on the very next lap and proceeding to edge away.
Behind the leading trio, the #8 Peugeot – which had lost time after getting caught up behind the wrong safety car during the night – continues to run a lapped fourth, albeit on much the same pace as the sister 908s, with the #16 Pescarolo currently claiming top petrol honours in fifth, ahead of the delayed Oreca Peugeot. Former Pescarolo driver Jean-Christophe Boullion, meanwhile, brought the challenge of the #13 Rebellion Racing Lola to a premature end when he crashed heavily in the Porsche Curves during the 14th hour.
Olivier Lombard leads LMP2 in the Greaves Motorsport Zytek, as David Hallyday swiped the nose off the front of the Team Oreca Matmut car and Mike Newton went for a brief spin in the RML. Frédéric da Rocha, meanwhile, gave the #8 and #7 Peugeots a scare when he spun off on the exit of Indianapolis immediately after the safety car had departed the fray, with the OAK Racing machine being pushed back onto the track by marshals just as the two 908s arrived on the scene, causing Sarrazin to have to swerve in avoidance.
There was an upset, too, in GTE-Pro, where long-time class leader Jan Magnussen spectacularly destroyed the #74 Corvette, losing control on the exit of the Porsche Curves heading towards the Ford Chicane, sideswiping the #63 Proton Compétition Porsche of Christian Ried who was alongside him at the time and sending both spearing off into barriers on opposite sides of the track. Both cars were instant retirements, as was the #64 Lotus JetAlliance Evora which stopped during the night and the two Luxury Racing Ferrari 458s.
In GTE-Am, finally, the Larbre Compétition Chevrolet Corvette holds a single-lap lead over the similarly Larbre-run #70 Porsche 997, whilst amongst those to have bitten the dust during the dark are the Gulf AMR Middle East Aston Martin Vantage and the Flying Lizard Motorsport Porsche.
#74 Corvette Racing C6 ZR1 – Accident
#81 Flying Lizard Motorsport Porsche 997 GT3 RSR – Mechanical
#48 Team Oreca Matmut 03-Nissan – Accident
#63 Proton Compétition Porsche 997 GT3 RSR – Accident
#13 Rebellion Racing Lola B10/60 Coupé-Toyota – Accident
#61 AF Corse Ferrari F430 – Accident
#59 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 Italia – Technical
#71 AF Corse Ferrari F430 – Mechanical
#88 Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 997 GT3 RSR – Accident
#42 Strakka Racing HPD ARX-01d – Mechanical
#60 Gulf AMR Middle East Aston Martin V8 Vantage – Accident
#39 PeCom Racing Lola B11/40-Judd BMW – Accident
#89 Hankook-Team Farnbacher Ferrari 458 Italia – Engine
#58 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 Italia – Accident
#64 Lotus JetAlliance Evora – Mechanical
#57 Krohn Racing Ferrari F430 – Mechanical
#24 OAK Racing Pescarolo-Judd – Fire
#1 Audi Sport Team Joest R18 TDI – Accident
#5 Hope Racing Oreca Swiss HY Tech-Hybrid – Mechanical
#62 CRS Racing Ferrari F430 – Accident
#15 OAK Racing Pescarolo Judd – Technical
#79 JOTA Sport Aston Martin Vantage – Engine
#20 Quifel-ASM Zytek 09 SC – Engine
#3 Audi Sport North America R18 TDI – Accident
#007 Aston Martin Racing AMR-One – Mechanical
#009 Aston Martin Racing AMR-One – Mechanical