As the Le Mans 24 Hours approached one-third distance, it was Toyota leading the race but an intriguing battle had developed between the Japanese team and the other two factory teams of Porsche and Audi while Aston Martin took charge of both GTE classes.
Toyota had extended its lead in the seventh hour mainly because of another safety car period that split the field when the #47 KCMG Oreca-Nissan car crashed in the Porsche Curves. Both the leader Kazuki Nakajima in the #7 Toyota TS040 Hybrid and Benoit Treluyer in the #2 Audi e-tron quattro pitted but whereas the Japanese driver stayed in the car, Treluyer handed over to Marcel Fassler.
The extra time in the pits cost Audi time and when Fassler rejoined he was nearly two minutes behind. However, as night fell at Le Mans and the air cooled, the e-trons looked to be circulating faster than the Toyotas.
Earlier, Formula 1 driver Mark Webber took over the #20 Porsche car for the first time on his return to Le Mans but he had to play catch-up after co-driver Brendon Hartley had overrun at Arnage and struggled to get the car moving again. The incident cost the 919 Hybrid around two minutes but the Australian was in fourth after eight hours. Co-driver Timo Bernhard had held top spot earlier, giving Porsche its first taste of the lead at Le Mans since 1998.
He lost that lead in the sixth hour to Stephane Sarrazin, who was then driving the #7 Toyota and completed four stints in the car in mixed conditions, which had included torrential downpours in the first few hours.
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“It was a tough start for me,” Sarrazin said after he had handed over to Nakajima. “I did four stints and my first in the wet was really on the edge.
“When I came out of the pits after the safety car I was behind 20 or so cars and I couldn’t see the track; there was so much water on the straight. I had to take a lot of time to overtake all those cars and avoid any problems. After that the track dried up and it was very good.”
Anthony Davidson had consistently driven some fast laps to help push the #8 Toyota back up the order after its earlier problems and long period in the pits but his efforts were neutralised because of a slow puncture and the car remained nine laps off the lead.
Meanwhile, Aston Martin was leading GTE Pro and Am but both classes looked as though they would be going right to the wire.
As the clock nearly reached 2300 CET, Darren Turner in the #97 Vantage GTE was less than half a second behind the leading Chevrolet Corvette C7.R of fellow Briton Richard Westbrook on lap 71 before passing him on the Mulsanne Straight. He was still leading GTE Pro as the eight-hour mark came whilst Giancarlo Fisichella had moved up to second in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia.
Turner had taken over from former F1 driver Bruno Senna whose three-hour stint had put the Vantage into second.
After watching his team-mate take the lead, Senna said: “The car was working well so we could push hard. Darren has done a fantastic job to get into the lead and pull away so much. There’s a long way to go.. but we’ll keep pushing.”
In GTE Am, the class for professional and amateur drivers, the top two spots were both held by Aston Martin Vantage GTEs, led by the #98 car of Paul dalla Lana with Nicki Thim second in the #95 sister car.
Aston Martin Racing, which is marking its 10th consecutive Le Mans, is no stranger to success at Le Mans having taken GT1 honours in 2007 and 2008 after huge battles with Ferrari and most notable, Corvette.
Earlier in the race, a new record was set when Matt McMurry took to the track. The American, racing a Zytek-Nissan for Greaves Motorsport, became the youngest driver to start at Le Mans at the age of 16 years, 202 days.Suggest a correction