Stephen Errity, Le Mans correspondent
No sooner had the safety car resulting from Anthony Davidson's accident come in, when Kazuki Nakajima in the #7 Toyota made contact with the Nissan DeltaWing, damaging the Toyota's rear bodywork enought to require an unscheduled pitstop. This has effectively put an end to Toyota's close pursuit of Audi, as the #1 and #2 e-tron quattros now lead the race, with the #1 of Marcel Fassler holding a one-lap advantage over Allan McNish in the #2.
Satoshi Motoyama was driving the DeltaWing when it was hit by the Toyota, and his co-driver Marino Franchitti was critical of Nakajima's actions, blaming the crash on a lack of spatial awareness by the young Japanese driver. Nakajima looked like he was going to be overhauled by a resurgent #4 Audi, currently being driven by Oliver Jarvis, but before he caught up, the #7 Toyota was brought back into the pit and wheeled into the garage, where the bodywork came off and what looked like a fairly comprehensive service began – it seems Toyota will now be treating the rest of the race as an extended test session, having shown a flash of potential earlier on.
The problems for the #3 Audi, retirement of the #8 Toyota and extended stop for the #7 have seen the #12 Rebellion Racing Lola rise to fourth place overall and first privateer, with Nicolas Prost currently at the wheel. The sister #13 car continues to back it up in fifth, Harold Primat on driving duty right now. It was also a very good couple of hours for the JRM HPD, which ran as high as sixth overall after running at the bottom of the top 10 earlier in the race. However, as the race entered the hours of full darkness, Peter Dumbreck suffered a puncture that pitched the car into the gravel and necessitated an unscheduled pitstop.
As the #7 Toyota tumbles down the order the longer it spends in the garage, the leading P2 car now sits in seventh place overall. The top three in P2 are all on the same lap, with the battle between the two OAK entries and Murphy Prototypes Oreca-Nissan hotting up courtesy of a very fast stint from young New Zealander Brendon Hartley that put the car into the class lead. “It was difficult to get the hard-compound tyres up to temperature, but once I got there I was able to run at a very good pace,” he said shortly after getting out of the car. “I've only done a few laps in the dark so that'll be my next challenge when I get back in the car.”
Currently holding third in class is the Starworks Motorsport HPD. While the car was still running fifth in class, driver Tom Kimber-Smith commented: “the pace in P2 is very quick this year and I don't think all the cars ahead of us will last at this pace. We're just keeping in touch with the lead lap.” His prediction was validated by two punctures in a row for a former contender for the class lead: the #35 OAK Morgan-Nissan.
Official retirements in the prototype classes as of now are the #29 Gulf Racing Lola LM P2 coupe and the #16 Pescarolo 03 LM P1 car – although the #7 Toyota and #17 Pescarolo Dome in P1, plus the remaining Gulf Racing machine and the Norma-Judd in P2, are all many laps off the leaders. And just as we went to press, it was confirmed that the Nissan DeltaWing will not be taking any further part in the race following the Toyota incident.