The latest twist in an enthralling Le Mans 24 Hours came in the 17th hour as the lead changed hands from one Audi to another.
Having taken over at the head of the field with 10 hours to go, the #2 R18 e-tron quattro had been running with no problems and had a three-lap lead before disaster struck when Marcel Fassler pitted and was immediately taken into the garage where the mechanics began working on the front of the car.
A turbo problem was diagnosed and the #2 Audi spent more than 20 minutes in the lap and from being three laps ahead Fassler found himself two laps behind the sister #1 Audi, driven by Marc Gene, who had been called into the team at the 11th hour following Loic Duval’s huge accident in practice.
Mark Webber gained from the Audi’s problems, moving the #20 Porsche 919 Hybrid into second place and onto the same lap as the lead car, while the #8 Toyota TS040 Hybrid driven by Anthony Davidson was promoted to fourth, an incredible rise up the field after it suffered its own problems earlier in the race.
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Davidson – and possibly Webber – would have been able to benefit more but for a lengthy safety car period following an accident involving a Ferrari which crashed at the Porsche Curves and damaged the barrier which marshals had to repair.
As the race moved towards three-quarter distance and the crowds began to return to the stands, Gene was still in the #1 Audi, keeping Webber at bay. This car has had a lazarus-like revival since Duval wrecked it on Wednesday and Audi mechanics worked through the night to have it ready for the final two qualifying periods on Thursday.
Tom Kristensen is the only one of the three in the #1 R18 who won last year and although this year’s race was showing that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted, fortune has been on the car’s side since the race started and the Dane looks on course for a possible 10th Le Man victory.
The GTE Pro class continued to be a closely fought battle between Aston Martin and Ferrari after the #74 Corvette spent time in the pits with an oil leak. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia driven by Toni Vilander had retaken the class lead from the #97 Vantage after Stefan Mucke had pitted for a regular stop.
Stefan Mucke set about reclaiming top spot and passed the Ferrari, now with Giancarlo Fisichella at the wheel, on the Mulsanne Straight, while third place was taken by the #92 911 RSR of Porsche Team Manthey.
Aston Martin’s lead in the GTE Am class was much healthier though with the #95 Vantage holding a three-lap advantage over the #88 Porsche.
“The Danish drivers in car #95 have done an impressive job to establish such a lead,” commented Team Principal John Gaw. “They just need to keep doing what they are doing and we will hope that luck stays on our side.”.