An early-race problem for the WEC points-leading Porsche turned the finale in Bahrain on its head, as the Mark Webber-led #17 car lost four laps with an engine issue, and a huge battle for the lead raged up front.
Audi took full advantage to looked poised to hold a 1-2 at the halfway point, as an incredibly aggressive strategy in the first half of the race paid dividends.
But although the championship-contending #7 Audi of Andre Lotterer/Marcel Fassler/Benoit Treluyer held sway convincingly up front, its sister car crewed by Lucas di Grassi/Loic Duval/Oliver Jarvis made an unscheduled stop to change a left-front brake disc after a spectacular failure on the approach to Turn 11.
A full course yellow was declared just before the halfway point, to clear the track of debris at four corners.
This allowed the #18 Porsche to close onto the tail of the leading Audi, and it jumped ahead at Turn 4. But the Audi retaliated on the next lap at the final corner.
The story so far
The race began in full daylight, with Bernhard getting a good jump at the lights went out at the rolling start, while the sister car of Dumas had to brake very late into Turn 1 to fend off an aggressive challenge from Fassler’s Audi.
But it was the second Audi, the #8 driven by di Grassi, which was the car to watch. It passed Fassler at Turn 1 on lap two and set fastest lap in the pursuit of Dumas.
Di Grassi moved ahead of the Porsche for second at Turn 1 nine minutes into the race. Bernhard was 4.5s clear in the lead at this point, a gap that continued to extend as they hit traffic for the first time.
Half an hour into the race the leading Porsche slowed and toured into the pits, promoting di Grassi to the lead. The car was wheeled into the garage to fix the engine’s actuator, and the engine cover removed with Bernhard staying in the car, shaking his head in disbelief.
The car rejoined after 8m35s, but was now five laps down.
Di Grassi pitted from the lead after 44m, handing the lead to the #18 Porsche.
Fassler pitted soon after, with Audi switching from its usual strategy and putting Lotterer – renowned as its fastest driver – in the lead car.
“It was a difficult start for me, I wasn’t happy with the balance, something changed – either the wind direction or the tyre pressure,” said Fassler.
Dumas pitted after 52m, and with both di Grassi and Lotterer lapping substantially quicker before his stop, the Audis held sway at the front after the Porsche rejoined over 10s behind them.
Lotterer took the lead after 90 minutes, as di Grassi got stuck behind Stephane Sarrazin’s Toyota for a couple of corners.
The #8 car repassed the #7 car in the next round of pitstops after Lotterer suffered a couple of bad laps in traffic, after which they emerged 20s clear of the #18 Porsche.
The #17 Porsche, which needed to finish fourth to be assured of the title, made short work of the LMP2 and non-hybrid LMP1s. But he still had to make up three laps to the Toyotas in three hours.
Then the #8 Audi hit its brake problem, which required a new left-front corner to be attached to the chassis.
That promoted the #2 Toyota to third, and the #17 Porsche to fifth – one place away from the position it needs and with the sister car running ahead.
KCMG rules LMP2
In LMP2 there was an epic early battle for the lead between Nick Tandy in the KCMG Oreca and Sam Bird in the first G-Drive Ligier, as the polesitting Signatech Alpine of started by Tom Dillmann fell to fourth on the opening lap.
“We focused on getting past the two guys in front, and got the start we wanted,” said Tandy. “Anything can happen.”
At the halfway point, Tandy’s teammates Matthew Howson and Richard Bradley had extended a 27s lead over the G-Drive Ligier, with the Signatech in third.
Porsche on top in GTE
Toni Vilander’s Ferrari led GTE Pro initially from Alex MacDowall’s Aston, but Porsche’s Patrick Pilet was storming through the field, passing MacDowall’s car – which had a penalty for using too many tyres in practice.
Pilet homed in on the rear of Vilander, and passed him at the final corner with less than 20 minutes on the clock.
“We are struggling a bit, we have a problem with the brakes,” reported Vilander’s teammate Gianmaria Bruni after his stint.
Pilet led Vilander by 29s after three hours.
The Larbre-run Chevrolet Corvette led the Am class.