Ed Fahey, Le Mans Correspondent
As the strains of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey rang out over the PA system, the 2012 edition of the Le Mans 24 hour race got underway at 3pm local time
Pole sitter in GTE-Pro, Jaime Melo in the #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari F458 led the GT field away, but quickly lost it in the first sector of the lap due to a hard charging Stefan Mucke in the #97 Aston Martin Vantage V8, and Olivier Gavin in the #74 Corvette C6R. By the end of Lap 1 Melo had slid to 4th being passed also by Olivier Beretta in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari F458.
By Lap 2 Mucke and Gavin pulled approximately 6 seconds ahead and were clearly leaving the rest of the field behind, with Toni Vilander in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari on the move, although the rest of the GTE field was staying very close together, with 3 abreast running on the Mulsanne straight at one point.
15 minutes in and Mucke/Gavin had a very clear lead with Beretta dropping off slightly but this left Jan Magnuessen in the #73 Corvette, poleman Melo, Vilander, and Marc Lieb in the #77 Felbermayr-Proton Porsche running in a very close train for 5th place.
30 minutes in and Gavin was now putting Mucke under more pressure, the Aston Martin wheelspining and sliding a bit more coming out of corners as it tried to stay ahead of the Corvette, this close battle also occurring as the leading LMP1 cars lapped the GTE cars for the first time, but Mucke and Gavin were still increasing the pace, their laptimes both in the 3.59 bracket.
Vilander was clearly on the attack, having started from the rear of the field, as he had taken 3rd in class by 45 minutes, just as the first pitstop occurred, Jorg Bergmeister in the #80 Flying Lizards Porsche pitting for fuel only.
A rake of pitstops soon followed, #97 Mucke fuel only, #73 with a full stop –Antonio Garcia in for Magnussen, tyres and refuel. Jan Magnussen was unwell this morning, but felt the adrenaline of racing would help him recover. He also commented the car was not running as well as the #74 car, the team making slight adjustments to the setup during the pitstop. The #74 Corvette pitted not long after for fuel – crucially 2 laps after the #97 Aston. Beretta then pitted the #71 Ferrari for fuel only.
Patrick Pilet started the #79 Flying Lizards Porsche 997 on pole and before long was among the GTE-Pro cars battling for 5th overall in GTE. Allan Simonsen in the #99 Aston Martin V8 Vantage challenged or the class lead yet Pilet remained sharp, defending each time. This mini battle slowly brought these two cars ahead of the chasing GTE-AM pack.
As the LMP leaders started to lap the pack, Nicolas Armindo in the #67 IMSA Perfomance Matmut Porsche 997 went straight at the Dunlop chicane in the company of Alex Wurz in the #7 LMP1 Toyota TS030, although without damage to either car, both rejoining. Pilet than passed Jan Magnuessen in the #73 Corvette giving himself a cushion over Simonsen, but only briefly, as during more LMP lapping, Simonsen finally made his move on Pilet, gaining the class lead.
The main battle in the first hour was for fourth in class, with Gunnar Jeanette in the #58 Luxury Ferrari and Rui Aguas #61 AF Corse-Waltrip Ferrari 458 pushing Nicolas Armindo's #67 Porsche. Not long after both Larbre Corvettes pitted (Pedro Lamy in #50 and Jean Phillipe Belloc in #70) as finally Simonsen pitted, handing the class lead to Pilet.