Rossi and WRT Audi team-mates Nico Müller and Frédéric Vervisch worked their way forwards from 35th (out of 66 cars) on the grid to reach the chequered flag in 17th place.

Taking advantage of full course yellows and restarts, the #46 machine ran as high as fourth place in the early stages and was still within the top eight by the six-hour mark.

But further yellows cost them a handful of positions, with Rossi running in 13th as darkness fell - when he was hit by a Mercedes and sent into the gravel.

More drama followed when Muller collided with the back of the sister #32 WRT entry, as it slammed on the brakes on the exit of La Source to avoid a stationary car ahead.

After repairs, the #46 team broke back into the top 20 with four hours remaining on its way to 17th place.

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“What a fantastic experience was this first 24-hour race!” said Rossi. “It’s something you can’t understand if you haven’t done it.

“It was tough, especially the last 8 hours, but I enjoyed every minute. I was quite fast, so I am happy.

“I also did some mistakes, we also had some bad luck, but at the end, to be able to finish and have a good result is very rewarding.”

Muller added: “It was a challenging race, as always, and to finish it is not a bad achievement, although we had hoped for a smoother race.

“For Vale it was important to finish and gain experience, he did a mega job, always on the limit. We had a number of hiccups, even before the race, and we can be pleased to finish.”

Vervisch also praised Rossi’s pace during what proved to be a drama-filled race.

“It’s great to finish and P17 is a decent result given the circumstances,” he said.

“In the night, Vale had that contact and spun, we lost one lap, and then Nico was involved in this unfortunate incident in the morning, with more time lost, despite the very quick repair made by the boys.

“Otherwise, Vale made a great job, driving exactly the same time as us, I am sure he gained a lot of experience.”

The race was won by the AMG Mercedes of Jules Gounon, Raffaele Marciello and Daniel Juncadella.