Peugeot continued to fly out front as the Le Mans 24 Hours entered the witching hour, holding a steady advantage over the best of the Audis which provides its closest opposition.

Half-distance in the world's most famous endurance sportscar race came and went with the #7 908 HDi FAP holding a gap of around a lap back to the #2 Audi of Rinaldo Capello, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen, which found itself caught out by the one and only safety car of the race to date.

The pace was slowed in order to facilitate the recovery and treatment of former DTM favourite Marcel Fassler, who crashed the lead Team Matmut ORECA Courage heavily at the Porsche Curves. Although the Swiss driver was eventually extracted unhurt, but taken to the circuit's medical facility as a precaution, the rescue effort caused the safety car to remain on track for just over half an hour.

Instead of being able to close up on the leading Peugeot, however, McNish found himself caught behind the second of two pace cars on track - necessitated by the length of the Circuit de la Sarthe - and was helpless to prevent the gap between them increasing. Even with the Audi making fewer pit-stops than its French opponent, McNish and co were unable to reduce the margin by which they trailed, although the gap is still slim enough that the leading Peugeot cannot afford to make a serious mistake.

It was fortunate, therefore, that the car's only slip-up came and went in the blink of an eye, as Nicolas Minassian spun the #7 - which he shares with Jacques Villeneuve and Marc Gene - after taking too much kerb on the entry to the start-finish straight. A quick rotation later - in which he avoided making contact with walls or opponents and ended up facing the right way - the Frenchman was quickly on his way. Villeneuve was at the wheel as the clock ticked through half-distance, the #7 just a handful of laps shy of reaching the 200 mark.

The lead Audi was proving equally reliable but, despite its lower number of fuel stops (16-19 at the last count), was unable to make inroads into Peugeot's advantage as the 908 continued to lap faster than the venerable R10.

Peugeot and Audi dominate the top five, with the French marque's #9 occupying the final podium spot at the halfway mark. Like its pace-setting sister, the car has recovered from Christian Klien's error - which saw the car in the gravel and out of top spot - to run a lap off the lead, while the two other Audis follow at similar distances , with the 'junior' car of Alex Premat, Mike Rockenfeller and Lucas Luhr heading veterans Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner.

As expected, Pescarolo holds sway in the petrol 'class', with the Harold Primat/Christophe Tinseau/Benoit Treluyer car filling sixth place, albeit five laps off the pace of the Audi immediately ahead. That puts the #17 machine a place ahead of the remaining Peugeot, which ran into further problems during the three-hour stint but refuses to give up completely. Shortly after 1am local time, the #8 was pushed back into the garage after failing to get away from a routine pit-stop. What appeared at first sight to be a gearbox problem, possibly related to hydraulic issues from earlier in the race, was eventually diagnosed as an electrical short-circuit, but the polewinner remains nine laps off the lead and seems to be attracting the bulk of Peugeot's problems.

The remaining ORECA entry, with Soheil Ayari at the wheel, occupies eighth, with the second Pescarolo car ninth as LMP1 machines fill the leading positions, but LMP2 is gradually beginning to make headway into the top ten, with the leading Porsche RS Spyder of van Merksteijn Motorsport holding the upper hand in the class.

The eye-catching purple-and-white machine has enjoyed a largely trouble-free run, as has the second-placed LMP2 car of Team Essex, whose similar Porsche runs a lap adrift of the class lead, but the same could not be said for the rest of the category, which has seen various casualties fall by the wayside.

Leading the list is the #25 RML MG-Lola which, after several stops in the pits, was eventually retired 'on safety grounds' after veteran Andy Wallace reported that it felt unstable at speed. The former class winner was joined on the sidelines by the luckless Kruse Schiller Motorsport Lola-Mazda which, having been rebuilt after Hideki Noda's monumental qualifying crash, seemed to spend almost as much time in the pits as it did on track. After several more visits, the #41 machine eventually ground to a halt out on track and was parked, smoking, on the approach to Tertre Rouge.

While neither RML or Kruse Schiller yet appears on the official retirement list - only Trading Performance does among LMP2 teams - others continue to struggle, not least the Bruichladdich Radical and Embassy cars, which are trying to claw their way back into contention after myriad problems. Meanwhile, fellow Britons Creation AIM and the US Autocon Creation entries are the stragglers in LMP1, although both continue to run ahead of the second Epsilon Euskadi car, which lost more then a hundred laps during a gearbox rebuild.

The #12 Charouz/Jota Lola-Judd returned slowly to the pits and was reported to be struggling with low oil pressure affecting the gearbox, while the sister Aston Martin-powered coupe also required attention after running strongly. Finally, the #11 Dome prototype continues to plug away in the lower reaches of the LMP1 class as its all-Japanese driving strength cope with teething troubles.

GT1 continues to be a titanic battle between the works Corvette and Aston Martin teams and, although the #009 DBR9 of David Brabham/Antonio Garcia/Darren Turner hold the class lead through half-distance, the #63 Corvette, with Jan Magnussen at the wheel, was only half a minute behind as positions fluctuated along with pit-stop strategy.

The leading AMR machine holds 15th overall, and only the LMP2 entry from Quifel ASM splits the top four in class, with the second Aston and Corvette mirroring their sister cars in 18th and 19th respectively. The leading 'privateer' in GT1 is the #22 Luc Alphand Aventures Corvette, seven places and four laps off the class lead, after both the Larbre Saleen and IPB Spartak Lamborghini Murcielago hit problems.

GT2 holds the unfortunate distinction of dominating the DNF list at the halfway mark, with four machines having fallen by the wayside, but Risi Competizione continues to run strongly, heading its nearest rival, a power-steering afflicted Virgo Motorsport, by a couple of laps as Ferrari takes full advantage of the Porsche runners committing hari-kiri. Indeed, the top five places in class are all occupied by Ferraris, with BMS Scuderia Italia JMB Racing and Farnbacher Racing completing a GT2 block between 26th and 30th overall.