It's been an eventful race thus far with two safety car periods and battles all around the circuit.
The first three hours of the Le Mans 24 Hours lived up to pre-event billing with a thrilling battle playing out between Audi and Porsche.
The race was ebbing and flowing between a small breakaway group of two Porsches – the No.17 and No.18 919 Hybrids and the No.7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro driven for the whole first three hours by a sensational Andre Lotterer.
Puncture gives control back to Porsche
A puncture soon muted the No.7 Audi's charge though, as Lotterer headed pitward just a few laps after his second scheduled stop. The team, led by engineer Leena Gade, elected to replace Lotterer with Benoit Treluyer, and take new tyres.
As a result, and as the clock ticked to three hours, it was the No.17 Porsche 919 Hybrid heading a Porsche 1-2 with Brendon Hartley converting some excellent early race work by teammate Timo Bernhard. The Porsche positions at the front were broken just before the three hour mark when Marco Bonanomi’s Audi split the two 919 Hybrids.
Pulsating racing in opening exchanges
The first hour of the race was punctuated by some ferocious racing. Initially, Bernhard snatched the lead on the Mulsanne during the first lap from pole sitter Neel Jani. Behind the top two, the No.7 and No.8 Audi’s found their way past the No.19 Porsche driven by Nico Hulkenberg.
Through the first stops the top four were bunched together and all looked set for an epic on track battle before the first safety car was thrown. Patrick Pilet’s LMGTE Pro Porsche blew its engine in spectacular fashion, triggering an accident between the No.13 Rebellion of Alex Imperatori and the Strakka LMP2 car driven by Jonny Kane.
The incident took place bang on the first hour and ensured that at the restart the battle royal was back on. Lotterer soon swooped and made moves on first Jani and then Berhnard to ensure that Audi led Le Mans at the 90-minute mark.
Lotterer had to complete another move on Bernhard after the second stops when he momentarily dropped behind his countryman. Bernhard had no answer to the No.7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro and Lotterer opened up a six second gap, setting the fastest lap of the race so far on a phenomenal 3m18.865s.
Lotterer stayed in the car until a puncture caused Audi to re-think its strategy with the No.8 car and insert Treluyer in to the cockpit. The unplanned stop dropped the former leaders back down to sixth place, 40 seconds adrift of the leading Porsche.
The No.8 Audi under the charge of Loic Duval had been in third position and just a few seconds away from the Porsche of Lieb. But 10 minutes before the three hour mark, approaching a slow zone for debris to be picked up; the Frenchman lost control of his car after seemingly failing to slow sufficiently and spun hard in the Indianapolis Armco. Duval managed to get the car back to the pits for repairs.
That incident elevated Marco Bonanomi in to second place after he slipped past Marc Lieb just before a Safety Car was deployed to retrieve debris from the Duval incident at Indianapolis.
Toyota Gazoo Racing, as expected, settled in to chasing the top six and stayed on the same lap despite been consistently between 3-4 seconds off the ultimate pace. The No.2 Toyota TS 040 HYBRID driven by Alex Wurz suffered a brief spin at the second Mulsanne Chicane under the initial Safety Car.
LMP2 - KCMG take control
Like its bigger brother, the LMP2 class saw some entertaining track battles in the opening exchanges.
Pole-sitter Richard Bradley in the ORECA 05 Nissan led away but was soon engaged in a fight for the lead, first with Sam Bird in the G-Drive Ligier-Nissan and then a charging Tristan Gommendy in the Thiriet by TDS ORECA. Gommendy soon took the lead of the class lead with a decisive move in to Mulsanne Corner.
Between stops the Murphy Prototypes Oreca 03-Nissan enjoyed a few laps in the lead but eventually settled in to fifth place after the pit stop shuffle.
However after the second stops it was the KCMG ORECA, still with Bradley at the wheel, which emerged back in the lead with a healthy 15-second lead. The Englishman handed over to former Toyota driver Nicolas Lapierre who then set about consolidating the lead for the Hong Kong based team.
After three hours Lapierre held a minute lead over the TDS ORECA, which was now in the hands of Ludovic Badey.
In third place was the Greaves Motorsport Gibson-Nissan driven by Jon Lancaster. Seven LMP2 cars remained on the lead class lap.
There was a tough start though for the reigning champions JOTA Sport. Oliver Turvey pitted in the first hour with a gearbox sensor problem, losing two laps to the class leaders.
Other incidents in LMP2 mostly involved the two American entries – Krohn Racing and ESM. Tracy Krohn as two incidents at the first Mulsanne Chicane. The first was a spin in to the gravel while the second saw him make contact with the No.30 car.
LMGTE produces multi-manufacturer scraps
As ever, the LMGTE Pro class was providing plenty of action with Aston Martin leading the way after scraps throughout the first three hours.
Gianmaria Bruni took an initial lead in the class before losing out to Richie Stanaway. The rapid young Kiwi led for much of the first portion of the race before the sister ‘Art’ car of Stefan Mucke emerged in the lead after the third scheduled stop.
One of the fights of the race was between Stanaway and Oliver Gavin’s Chevrolet Corvette in the second hour. The two exchanged positions for several laps before the Aston Martin eventually came out on top.
In LMGTE Am Jeroen Bleekemolen took a surprising lead in the Riley Motorsports SRT Viper. Earlier the pole sitting Aston Martin of Pedro Lamy had a commanding lead but this was given up after an early driver change from the Portuguese ace to Paul Dalla Lana.
Second in class was the SMP Racing Ferrari 458 Italia which had led briefly in the hands of factory Ferrari driver Andrea Bertolini. Russian driver Viktor Shaitar was at the wheel as the race entered the fourth hour.