Little changed at the head of the field as a damp dawn greeted the remaining runners at Le Mans, with Audi continuing to best Peugeot and the rain continuing to come and go, hampering the French team's efforts to regain the lead.
The #2 Audi R10 TDi, which took the lead shortly after 4am, completed four hours at the front of the pack with Allan McNish replacing Tom Kristensen behind the wheel and underlining the car's prowess in the wet conditions. The #7 Peugeot, which had led for so long through the middle part of the race, remained in contention, but only managed to eat into the Audi's advantage when the track began to show a drying line.
At 18 hours, the Audi, with McNish doing multiple stints, led by a shade under a lap, as the frontrunning pair opened out two laps on the third-placed car. Countering the belief that Audi now held the upper hand, however, the #9 Peugeot had retaken the final podium spot during the various pit-stops during the 17th hour. Lucas Luhr's attempts to get the car back on terms were dented, however, when the #3 R10 had to take to the escape road at the second Mulsanne chicane, losing valuable time as the German weaved through the tyre bales.
Luhr wasn't the only leader to suffer, however, as Pedro Lamy twice rotated the recovering #8 as he pressed on in an attempt to close the yawning gap between himself and the top five. The polesitting car had lost a lot of time early in the race and currently circulates ten laps off the overall lead. Between the #8, which ended the three-hour segment with fastest man Stephane Sarrazin at the wheel after a nose change and spin for Pedro Lamy, and the #3 Audi, the German marque's veteran trio kept the #1 machine running solidly, albeit three laps off the pace.
Although the rain continues to fall in waves, the track surface remains treacherous, keeping all drivers on their toes - particularly in traffic - but maintaining Audi's slim advantage.
Best of the rest continues to be Pescarolo Sport, but the French outfit's challenge has been halved after the #16 fell by the wayside early in the 16th hour. The car was parked in the garage, with little visible effort to refettle it. The apparent retirement left the #17 sister car comfortably out front - despite a trip down the escape road for Benoit Treluyer - with 'second in class' Matmut Team ORECA now six laps adrift after various minor incidents.
The LMP2 class has a solid fingerhold on a place in the top ten as the van Merkesteijn Porsche RS Spyder continues to run strongly and has climbed to ninth place. The Dutch machine now enjoys a nine-lap cushion back to second in class, but the Porsche 1-2 had been broken by problems for the Team Essex car that have dropped it to third in the junior prototype category, with the #35 Saulnier Pescarolo coming up to P2 in the hands of Pierre Ragues, Franky Cheng and Mathieu Lahaye.
Team Essex currently runs two places behind the French entry, in 15th overall, with Rollcentre Racing occupying the final top ten slot and the Charouz Lola-Aston eleventh. The leading GT1 car, the #009 Aston Martin of Brabham/Garcia/Turner is now nestled among the various prototypes having enjoyed a solid and reliable run throughout the night. With Brabham and Garcia putting in rapid stints during the worst of the conditions, the Gulf-coloured car is now a lap to the good in class, with the #63 Corvette also having suffered a rare off-course excursion in the hands of veteran Ron Fellows.
“The conditions were changing every lap," the Canadian revealed, "There were dry areas in the Porsche Curves and then heavy rain in the front straight and in Dunlop. I got caught out by a shower in Mulsanne, had to back up and lost maybe 30 seconds. At that point, I think we'd spent too much time in semi-dry conditions, and then, when it turned wet again, we'd built up too much tyre pressure. It's incredibly difficult because the track changes every lap."