Audi leads, but Toyota strong

There was a comfortable lead for the Audi #1 during the first four hours, but glitches hit the #2 and #3 cars allowing Toyota to keep them honest and apply some pressure.
Andre Lotterer/Marcel Fassler/Benoit Treluyer Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro
Andre Lotterer/Marcel Fassler/Benoit Treluyer Audi Sport Team Joest Audi…

As expected, Audi were looking hard to beat right from the moment the tricolour waved to start 24 hours of racing action at Le Mans on Saturday afternoon. But while the #1 car sailed off into the distance, Audi weren't looking invulnerable and minor glitches befell the #2 and #3 cars, allowing Toyota to move into the second and third positions and apply some pressure on the race favourites.

The race started with a hint of showers in the area, but the skies soon cleared and the threat of wet conditions subsided. Audi and Toyota set a blistering pace from the very start, and were lapping backmarkers less than half an hour into the race and just seven laps into their runs, with the closing speed of the Audi and Toyotas on the GTE backmarkers appearing even more phenomenal than usual.

Both Toyotas came into the pits fairly early on lap 9 for quick services, along with Mike Rockenfeller in the #4 Audi which seemed a rather more unusual affair as he was pulled back into the garage for a checkover, putting him down a lap before he was allowed to return to action. Two more Audis - race leader Andre Lotterer in the #1 and Allan McNish in the #2 - were in next time around for rather more straightforward stops, leaving Loic Duval in charge of the race in the #3 Audi until his own stop on lap 11.

Duval was in again on lap 12 - for another new set of tyres, costing him additional time because of a rear puncture from a sharp stone. As a result of this, Lotterer was restored to the lead in the #1 Audi ahead of McNish in the #2 with Duval eventually temporarily slotting in to fifth behind the two Toyotas before making his way ahead of Alexander Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin during the next stint and return to third place, half a minute off McNish. Rockenfeller had fallen to tenth because of his own extended call to the pits, the first car off the lead lap at the end of the first hour.

Pescarolo's painful 2012 Le Mans continued, with both Sebastian Bourdais in the #17 Dome Judd and Emmanuel Collard in the #16 Pescarolo 03 Judd both having prolonged stays in the pits and tumbling off the lead lap and down the running order. The Dome was able to rejoin after a transmission problem was attended to but there were also subsequent alternator and driveshaft problems that kept the car making repeat visits to pit lane. The #16 was looking to be effectively out of the race with yet more engine problems, making the problem of Jean-Christophe Boullion's exit from the driver line-up after his mid-week accident somewhat moot.

Two hours in the first driver changes among the factory LMP1 teams cycled through: Benoit Treluyer took over from Lotterer in the lead while Tom Kristensen took over from McNish in the #2. Duval went a stint further before handing over to Romain Dumas in the third #3 Audi, while both Toyota cars opted for quick driver changes with Nicholas Lapierre taking over the #7 and Sebastien Buemi installed in the #8.

Until he spun at the Ford chicane, Nick Heidfeld had been in sixth place in the #12 Rebellion Racing Lola Coupe-Toyota ahead of the fourth factory #4 Audi that was still recovering from that prolonged early check, with Rockenefeller handing over to Marco Bonanomi for the next stint. Audi's business-as-usual plan was slightly upset on lap 45 when Kristensen's progress was briefly interrupted as the #2 paid an unexpected visit to the pit garage to remove a large lump of rubber pick-up from the suspension, which dropped them down to fifth place behind the Toyotas and Dumas and just ahead of Bonanomi, but Kristensen was clearly determined to make up the positions again in short order.

As the end of hour four loomed, Treluyer still dominated the race lead in the #1 but was looking oddly vulnerable without his wingmen, while Nicholas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi were very much keeping the Audi marque honest in second and third place. Dumas was the next hightest placed Audi in fourth place in the #3 ahead of Kristensen and Bonanomi, while the best of the rest were the two Rebellion Racing Lola B12/60 Coupe-Toyotas with Neel Jani in seventh place having taken over the wheel of the #12 and Jeroen Bleekemolen eighth in the #13.

In the LMP2 class, John Martin kept the lead in the #25 ADR-Delta Oreca 03-Nissan at the start from Olivier Pla in the #24 OAK Racing Morgan Judd, but the #26 Signatech Nissan Oreca fell down the running order early on. That was shaken up by the first round of pit stops that promoted Pla to the lead ahead of Mathias Beche in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca Nissan and Thomas Kimber-Smith in the #44 Starworks Motorsport HRD ARX 03B Honda.

Martin had been sent tumbling down the running order by a costly early two minute stop. Also hitting problems just 75 minutes into the race was the #29 Gulf Racing Middle East Lola driven by Marc Rostan, stopping at the exit of the Porsche curves after hitting the wall and becoming the first official retirement of the race. The #40 Race Performance Oreca 03 Judd also had a comprehensive beaching in the gravel in the hands of Michel Frey and had to limp back to the pits for a good clear-out. When he took over the car, Jonathan Hirschi subsequently rubbed salt into the team's wound by incurring a pit lane 30-second pit lane speeding penalty; the #43 Extreme Limite Aric Norma MP 2000 similarly had a touch of pit lane drama just over the three hour mark with a small fire swiftly attended to by the crew.

As the four hour mark approached, the #24 OAK Racing Morgan Judd was still in the lead with Pla having handed over to Matthieu Lahaye. The second LMP2 OAK Racing entry was second in class with Bas Leinders driving, while Jody Firth in the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca 03-Nissan was up into third ahead of Ryan Dalziel in the #44 Starworks Honda.

The Ferraris were able to go a lap longer than the Corvettes in the GTE Pro class, but once the stops cycled through it was still Stefan M?cke in the #97 Aston Martin Vantage V8 in a fierce duel with Oliver Gavin in the #74 Chevrolet Corvette C6 for the class lead, with the #71 AF Corse Ferrari driven by Olivier Beretta maintaining third place until it spun off into the gravel at the Dunlop curve.

The #80 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 RSR went off at high speed into the gravel at Indianapolis 18 laps into its race and suffered right rear suspension damage, while the class polesitter #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari lost ground when Jamie Melo pushed the fuel just a little too far and ran dry on his way into pit lane.

Darren Turner took over the #97 Aston Martin from M?cke and Tommy Milner the #74 Corvette from Gavin, immediately carrying on the thrilling ding-dong battle between the two cars - although briefly handing over the class lead to the rebuilt #51 AF Corse Ferrari, which was getting markedly superior fuel conservation in the hands of Gianmaria Bruni. Turner finally made a slight mistake on lap 37, two and a half hours in to the race: he ran wide into Arnage, allowing not only Milner to take the class lead but also seceding second place to the patient Bruni. Turner pitted shortly after with a seat-of-the pants dive into pit lane, taking some of the heat out of the on-track battle for the time being.

At the four-hour mark, the #51 Ferrari was in the hands of Giancarlo Fisichella and in the GTE-Pro lead ahead of Turner in the #67 Aston Martin and Richard Westbrook in the #74 Corvette as it continued to look very much like a three-hander.

In the GTE-Am class, polesitter Patrick Pilet had taken control at the start and pulled out an impressive lead in the #79 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 RSR. Initially that was ahead of Allan Simonsen in the factory #99 Aston Martin Vantage V8 and Sean Edwards in the Prospeed Competition Porsche, but Simonsen was to fall off the pace with an intermittent engine misfire leaving Nicholas Armindo to jump ahead of Edwards for second in class in the #67 Porsche 911.

The #75 Prospeed Competition Porsche 911 RSR had beached itself in the gravel at Indianapolis on its 36th lap just shy of the three hour mark while Abdulaziz Alfaisal was at the wheel, and Matt Griffin went off into the gravel at the same place half an hour later in the #81 AF Corse Ferrari just minutes before #99 Aston Martin Vantage skated off the track across the gravel at the Porsche Curve and into the tyres, knocking the wind out of Kristian Poulsen.

Pilet was replaced in the #79 by Spencer Pumpelly at the second round of pit stops, who was easily able to fend off Raymond Narac in the #67 and Paolo Ruberti in the #88 Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 911. Seth Neiman was then handed the wheel of the class leader and as the four hour mark came up he was well in front of Gianluca Roda now installed in the #88, and Julien Canal in the #50 Labre Competition Chevrolet Corvette C6.

Unfortunately for fans of the futuristic Delta Wing - literally in a class of its own at Le Mans - the Highcroft Racing #0 car slid down the timing screens while stuck in the garage with a minor gearbox issue. The problem was tracked down to a standard actuator component, but when the car finally resumed the distinctive vehicle was 14 laps down and in 52nd place.

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