Stephen Errity, Le Mans Correspondent
With Toyota's promising effort now a fading memory, the battle for victory in the 2012 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours has come down to a private intra-team battle between the #1 and #2 Audi R18 e-tron Quattros. A brief off-track excursion for Marcel Fassler in the #1 brought the McNish, Kristensen and Capello's #2 right into contention, before a safety car caused by the #75 Porsche crashing handed the advantage back to the 2011 winning crew once more.
“I was quite lucky not to crash after touching the right-hand inside kerbs there,” said the Swiss later on. There was a poignant moment shortly before the sun went up when Dindo Capello was congratulated by his crew before driving the first stint of his birthday – and possibly his penultimate stint at Le Mans ever.
The #4 Audi R18 TDI of Oliver Jarvis, Marco Bonanomi and Mike Rockenfeller continues to circulate in a lonely third position, two laps down on the leaders but six laps up on the next car: the #12 Rebellion Lola-Toyota that has seemingly been in fourth place forever. That may now be under threat, however: Marc Gene in the recovering #3 R18 TDI is just two laps off the privateer petrol coupe and circulating several seconds a lap faster as we enter 'Happy Hour' – the portion of the race when the temperature rises as daylight breaks and the fastest lap of the event is commonly set.
Seventh place overall continues to be the domain of the leading LM P2 car – still the Starworks HPD and currently with young Briton Ryan Dalziel at the wheel. One place and one lap behind sits the JRM HPD P1 car – the team pounding around relentlessly despite several mechanical issues and on course to beat the finishing position of their more experienced fellow HPD team Strakka Racing.
Second and third in P2 have remained fairly static for a while, too. Pecom Racing team boss Luis Perez-Companc is making the most of the favoured Oreca-Nissan chassis/engine combination and his experienced co-drivers Soheil Ayari and former Audi man Pierre Kaffer. “There's nothing much to say, we're just keeping up a rhythm to finish the race,” reported Ayari. The #26 Signatech Oreca-Nissan crew continue to outshine their more fancied #23 colleagues: while Nelson Panciatici is keeping the Pecom car honest just over a minute behind, Olivier Lombard in the #23 went off at Mulsanne corner just before dawn.
Retirements are beginning to pile up: In addition to the two Toyotas, we've also lost the Pescarolo 03, the #24 P2 OAK, the #28 and #29 Gulf Racing Lolas, plus the similar Lotus-badged #31 car. Erstwhile LM P2 leaders Murphy Prototypes also called it a day, but the #17 Pescarolo Dome is still being worked on in the garage, despite only having completed 173 laps to the leader's 235.