Audi is leading the Le Mans 24 Hours after nine hours of racing but the event has been marred by tragedy after the death of a driver soon after the race started.
The race for overall honours is between the two factory teams of Audi and Toyota and immediately from the start both teams set off at a furious pace with the two Toyotas signalling their intent as they homed in on their rivals.
Allan McNish in the lead #2 Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro was passed by team-mate Andre Lotterer before the pair had got to the Dunlop Bridge while Nicolas Lapierre moved his Toyota TS030 Hybrid up to second by the end of the first lap.
The leading three cars were fighting tooth and nail as though it was a sprint rather than a 24-hour endurance race and Lapierre and Lotterer swapped the lead until the race was brought to a halt after a huge crash involving one of the Aston Martins.
Allan Simonsen had qualified his Aston Martin Vantage in pole position in the GT AM class but his race came to an end on the third lap after he skewed off the circuit at Tertre Rouge. There was a huge impact which went led to 50 minutes under the safety cars as marshals rebuilt the barriers. The Dane was taken away from the scene in an ambulance.
Once the race restarted, the Audis and Toyotas continued their battles with McNish, Lotterer and Toyota’s Anthony Davidson all leading at some point but after two hours with the rain coming down and teams switching to intermediate tyres it was Davidson who was ahead.
There was good news for Aston Martin though; the #97 Vantage of Darren Turner was leading the GT Pro class whilst the team waited for an update on team-mate Simonsen.
That news came just after the three-hour mark – and it was the news no one wanted to hear. An official statement from the ACO confirmed that Simonsen had succumbed to his injuries in the crash and died. His was the first fatality at Le Mans since 1997.
Aston Martin released a statement confirming that the team would continue to race: "Following the ACO's media statement concerning the tragic death of Aston Martin Racing driver Allan Simonsen, and at the specific request of his family, the team will continue in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in tribute to Allan."
In a joint statement later on Saturday evening, the FIA and ACO presidents, Jean Todt and Pierre Fillon respectively, said: "We wish to express our profound sadness regarding the death of Allan Simonsen at today's 24 Hours of Le Mans. We would like to convey our deepest and heartfelt sympathies to Allan's family and friends. Our thoughts are also with his Aston Martin team-mates at this difficult time.”
Back on the track and the Toyotas were showing their fuel advantage, pitting every 12 laps compared to the Audis’ 10 but by the end of the fourth hour, the German marque held the top three positions.
However, expect the unexpected is a familiar refrain at Le Mans and soon the race was thrown on its head. After another two safety car periods, one caused when the #24 Oak Racing nearly collected the #2 Audi as it slid off the track in the Porsche Curves, positions changed because of the vagaries of the safety cars and Oliver Jarvis in the #3 Audi moved ahead of Loic Duval in the #2.
Duval then showed how the conditions were improving by setting the fastest lap – 1m23.2s – just before the six-hour mark. Up until then the weather had caused problems for teams as wind and rain came and went with increasing regularity.
By this stage the Audis were stretching their leads and the Toyotas looked to be losing touch with the #7 car stopping on track and then a few laps driven very slowly back to the pits by Alex Wurz as the TS030 nearly ran out of fuel, losing 30 seconds on one lap.
However, it was Audi who suffered the most in the seventh hour as the lead #1 R18 had to pit just two laps after a scheduled stop. It would lose 12 laps in the garage as mechanics tackled a crank sensor failure and rejoined in 24th place.
Jarvis then had to complete nearly a full lap on three wheels after his left rear tyre punctured and delaminated at the Dunlop chicane. Wurz moved up to second and Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 Toyota into third as the Audi dropped to fourth.
With the French circuit now in complete darkness, Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loic Duval held the whip hand but with 15 hours still to go, the race had already shown how fortunes can quickly change.
As Aston Martin led the GT Pro class after nine hours, the CEO of Aston Martin Racing, David Richards, spoke about the team's decision to continue racing.
“Incidents like this are very rare but when they happen you have to make decisions based on a number of factors – in this case the wishes of the family were paramount," he said.
"We spoke with Allan’s family who were insistent that we continued to compete in the 24-hour race. The team is, of course, deeply saddened by the loss of one of our drivers, however we are as focused as ever to win this race, but we are now racing to win for Allan.”