As darkness fell at Le Mans there was no relenting of drama and intrigue, as Porsche and Audi went wheel-to-wheel in the battle for the overall lead right up until midnight.
It was a thrilling evening session as the No.17 and No.19 Porsche 919s and the No.7 and No.9 Audi R18 quattros traded times and positions throughout the evening.
Rene Rast, Nico Hulkenberg, Marcel Fassler and Mark Webber all traded laptimes and track positions during the scheduled pitstops to engage in a stunning display of endurance racing.
Nico Hulkenberg brought the No.19 Porsche back into contention with an epic quadruple stint. The Force India F1 driver led as Sunday morning began, but only after some misfortune for the sister car.
The lead quartet was broken up at 23.30 when the leading No.17 of Mark Webber was penalised with a one-minute stop-go penalty for Brendon Hartley earlier overtaking under yellow flags.
This would have allowed Marcel Fassler into the lead in the No.7 Audi, but the Swiss pitted at the same time, almost hitting the back of Webber’s 919 Hybrid as he entered pitlane. The Australian was back in the pits on the following lap to hand over to Timo Bernhard, who began his second race stint in the cockpit.
This ensured that Hulkenberg regained the lead and headed Rast in the No.9 Audi by just six seconds as midnight struck.
There was drama for the No.18 Porsche 919 Hybrid just after 10pm, when Romain Dumas left the circuit at Mulsanne Corner and speared into the tyrewall damaging the nose section of the black Porsche. The Frenchman immediately pitted for a new nose but fell off the lead lap as a consequence.
Oliver Jarvis took over the No.8 Audi and but was a lap down on the leading bunch after being picked up by the second safety car.
Toyota placed seventh and eighth with the No.2 TS 040 HYBRID leading the delayed No.1, which was three laps adrift of its sister car.
Nissan had a troubled evening with further delays to its GT-R LM NISMO entries. All three of the Ben Bowlby designed front-engined LMP1s were stricken, with the No.22 appearing to hit an animal on the track, which caused its bonnet to fly off, while the No.23 stopped at Arnage soon after.
ORECA 1-2 in LMP2
The LMP2 class continued to feature an ORECA 1-2, as KCMG continued to lead the Thiriet by TDS team.
Matt Howson finished an immaculate triple stint before handing over to Richard Bradley who expanded the lead, with help from the third safety car of the race, to lead by 1m20s. This was despite a drive-through penalty for Bradley when the team got a penalty for a pitstop infringement just before the midnight hour.
The Signatech Alpine had been a comfortable third but Paul-Loup Chatin left the circuit at Mulsanne Corner, severely damaging the car and triggering the third safety car of the race at 22.40. Chatin was unable to get the car back to the pits but has yet to be confirmed as an official retirement.
Promoted up to third was the No.26 G-Drive Ligier-Nissan, which Sam Bird had hauled back into contention earlier in the evening. Roman Rusinov took over driving duties and had a 28-second gap over the Murphy Prototypes open-topped ORECA 03-Nissan in fourth place.
Corvette and Aston battle rages in GTE
The Corvette and Aston-Martin scrap continued in the LMGTE Pro class with Jordan Taylor re-capturing the lead just after 21.00.
The on-track battle intensified when Rob Bell took over from Darren Turner and began to hunt down Taylor’s Corvette C7.R.
The dicing sadly ended just as the track went green after the safety car, when Bell pulled the Aston Martin Vantage V8 off the track at Mulsanne Corner with what appeared to be a sudden and terminal problem.
This gave Taylor breathing space at the front, and the youngster from Orlando stretched the lead steadily to the No.99 Aston Martin which had lost time after a few mediocre stints from Alex MacDowall.
Just before midnight, Taylor made the teams’ eighth scheduled stop which handed the lead temporarily back to the No.99 Aston.
Third in class was the remaining Porsche Manthey 911 RSR with Austrian Richard Leitz striving to get on terms with the Corvette and Aston.
LMGTE Am saw the No98 Aston Martin still lead with Pedro Lamy extending the lead during his second stint at the wheel.
The Portuguese former Lotus and Minardi F1 driver was resisting the Prancing Horse challenge from the No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia and the Russian SMP Racing example.
The latter, in the hands of Andrea Bertolini, was rapidly closing in on the AF Corse car which had veteran of 20 Le Mans 24 Hours, Emmanuel Collard at the wheel.