Canadian Tony Burgess was lucky to escape serious injury in a huge crash that cut his Lola coupé in half as the half-way point of the race loomed.
The Status GP driver smacked into the concrete walls at the fast sweeps of the Porsche Curves just before 2.20am. The huge impact ripped the engine, rear axle and gearbox assembly clean off the chassis, a flash fire causing more alarm as the wreck came to rest.
Everyone held their breath until TV pictures showed Burgess emerge from the car and walk over to the wall to be checked over by medics. The watching world exhaled once more.
The race was neutralised for 20 minutes while the Lola was removed and resumed with the no 2 Audi of Allan McNish still heading the field. The Scot had returned to the cockpit just after 1.30am, taking over from Tom Kristensen at the end of the Dane’s five stints at the wheel.
At the half-way mark, McNish, Kristensen and Loïc Duval led the no 8 Toyota of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Stéphane Sarrazin by more than a lap, with the second TS030 just over a minute behind in third place. The delayed Oliver Jarvis/Lucas di Grassi/Marc Gené was running fourth, more than two minutes off the no 7 Toyota.
The fastest car on the circuit by far was the no 1 Audi, André Lotterer taking over from Marcel Fassler and predictably going on a nothing-to-lose charge after the lengthy pit delay that has cost the crew any realistic hope of achieving a hat-trick of Le Mans wins. By 3am, Lotterer was back up to ninth and closing fast on the LMP2 class leader, Oak Racing’s Morgan-Nissan driven by Bertrand Baguette, Ricardo González and Martin Plowman.
The battle for GTE Pro honours continued to rage away, the no 99 Aston Martin Vantage holding a slender lead. The sister Aston of Darren Turner and the leading Porsche of Marc Lieb ran just a couple of seconds apart through the early hours of the new day, and with another 12 hours to go it’s still anybody’s race.
As night took hold of La Sarthe many of the spectators crowding the paddock and village left for campsite bars, less crowded parts of the track or even bed. By the time night properly fell it was even possible to get cash out of the sole machine in the village. A job which would have taken 45 minutes just a few hours ago. No great surprise when not a single food outlet takes cards…
It may have been the sight of the three Audis filling the top three spots, with little challenge coming from the Toyotas in fair weather, that pushed fans off to find entertainment elsewhere. If it was they left at the wrong time because six hours and 40 minutes into the race Benoït Tréluyer, who was leading from the no 2 car of Duval, pulled into the pits for a scheduled stop, but stalled twice when trying to rejoin the track. He immediately returned to the garage and the problem was traced to a motor generator in the car. Forty-three minutes later and his team-mate Fässler rejoined in 24th. Barring miracles the Tréluyer/Fässler/Lotterer line up won’t have any chance of completing a hat trick of Le Mans victories.
While all this was happening Olly Jarvis, in the no 3 car, spun at the Dunlop chicane as a result of contact. His left-rear tyre punctured and once it had peeled off the rim he made the perilous journey all the way back to the pits. No repairs were needed and his team-mate Marc Gené made it back out on a new set of tyres.
By now the no 2 Audi was out in front and the two Toyotas were chasing in second and third. Despite another safety car, after Tor Graves spun the no 25 ORECA 03-Nissan LMP2 at the Porsche Curves, the no 2 car stretched out its lead and currently sits a lap ahead of the no 8 Toyota.
Toyota may be in a far better position than it was a few hours ago, but the Japanese manufacturer will be praying for rain as that’s its only hope of catching the leading Audi. That or another glitch in the German matrix.
The battle continues to rage in the GT Pro class with the Bell/Makowiecki/Senna Aston Martin leading from the sister Drumbreck/Mücke/Turner car and the Lieb/Lietz/Dumas Porsche, while in the LMP2 category the order, which is also constantly changing, reads Baguette/González/Plowman Oak Racing Morgan Nissan, Pla/Heinemeier Hansson/Brundle Oak Racing Morgan Nissan, Mardenborough/Ordóñez/Krumm Greaves Zytek Z11SN-Nissan.
There was some unconventional excitement in the GT Am class as the no 27 pit was suddenly crowded at 11.45pm. Once you fought through the huddle of photographers and team members, though, it became apparent why there was such a frenzy of activity: Patrick Dempsey, aka Derek Shepherd from American TV series Grey’s Anatomy, was heading out for his first stint. ‘McDreamy’, as he is (apparently) called, struggled to get off the line, but soon disappeared from sight as he turned off towards the Dunlop Chicane in search of the class-leading Porsche of Ried/Roda/Ruberti.
The no 1 Audi continued to lead at quarter distance as Benoît Tréluyer took up from where André Lotterer left off at the front of the field. But Loïc Duval, in for Allan McNish in the no 2 R18 e-tron quattro, pegged the gap to just 36 seconds at the six-hour mark.
A pair of safety car periods within 25 minutes in the fifth hour closed up the field. But it didn’t affect the gap between the leading Audis, following their scheduled pit stops under the neutralised race.
The second yellow-flag period of the race occurred at 8.07pm, when Tristan Gommendy’s Signatech Alpine LMP2 scattered debris at the start of the Mulsanne. The race went green once more just over 10 minutes later, only for a Lotus LMP2 to drop the whole of its rear bodywork a little further down the track, just after the first chicane.
In those brief moments of racing between safety cars, Duval had a lucky escape when David Heinemeier Hansson spun away his Oak Morgan’s LMP2 lead at he Porsche Curves. Duval was right behind the Dane and only just missed the spinning car.
The third Audi of Oliver Jarvis, in for Lucas di Grassi, continued to maintain Audi’s 1-2-3 grip on the race, ahead of the two Toyotas – which found themselves comprehensively outpaced as Le Mans finally waved goodbye to the treacherous mixed conditions and welcomed pleasant, if cold, evening conditions. On a dry track, the TS030 couldn’t live with its rival.
The safety car closed the Toyotas up, allowing Alex Wurz in the no 7 car to pass Sébastien Buemi in no 8 to run fourth.
Behind the big guns, Strakka Racing’s HPD was on the move, having started a lowly 36th after its disasters in qualifying that included a crash for Jonny Kane and a penalty for failing to qualify within 110 per cent of pole position. Kane made up for his error to take the fight to the Rebellion Lolas.
The G-Drive Racing ORECA-Nissan of Roman Rusinov took over the lead of LMP2 following the Oak Morgan’s troubles, while in GTE Pro a fantastic battle raged between Aston Martin and Porsche.
Le Mans remains stunned by the death of Allan Simonsen on the third lap of the race. But Aston Martin has chosen to race on, with the Simonsen family’s blessing, following the tragedy. A class victory would be the most fitting tribute.
Fred Makowiecki chased down Aston team-mate Stefan Mücke to take the lead of the class, only for the no 97 Aston to move back ahead during the safety car periods. Makowiecki handed over to Bruno Senna as Peter Dumbreck jumped in for Mücke, and it was the ex-Formula 1 driver who re-established the class lead of the no 99 Vantage.
But the factory Porsche of Richard Lietz was right with the pair as the race moved into its seventh hour. While the battle for the overall win might not be the most thrilling we’ve seen in recent years, the GTE Pro fight looks more than capable of making up for it.
The incident occurred in the wake of a sparkling start, as the leading Audi and Toyota drivers scrapped with the kind of intensity more usually associated with short sprints.
It was drizzling as the race began, albeit lightly, and André Lotterer immediately grabbed the lead from pole-sitting Audi team-mate Allan McNish… and Frenchman Nicolas Lapierre passed the Scot, too, in the leading Toyota. McNish immediately attempted to retaliate, but eventually conceded as the Audis and Toyotas settled into the top five positions, ahead of the two Rebellion Lolas in the hands of Nick Heidfeld and Andrea Belicchi.
The race was swiftly neutralised following Simonsen’s accident. The Dane had taken an early lead in the GTE-Am class and was negotiating Tertre Rouge when his Aston Martin Racing Vantage suddenly speared to the left and struck the Tertre Rouge barriers at high speed. The badly damaged Aston bounced back into the centre of the circuit, minus its right rear wheel, and the race would continue behind the safety car for almost an hour while attempts were made to revive the driver and barrier repairs were completed. Approaching the three-hour mark, Aston Martin issued a statement to confirm that the 34-year-old, who was contesting his seventh Le Mans, had succumbed to his injuries
Lotterer led throughout the first three hours, with the occasional change during pit cycles, with McNish running second and Lucas di Grassi completing an Audi one-two-three. The Brazilian had a quick trip through the Indianapolis gravel, but lost little time.
Lapierre dropped back soon after the restart, before Toyota advised him to switch his hybrid system to a different setting. The Frenchman’s pace soon picked up again, although he later lost time when he stopped very briefly on the Mulsanne Straight. He was running fifth after three hours, behind team-mate Anthony Davidson.
Toyota is getting better fuel mileage than Audi – its cars generally running for 12 laps between stops to the Audis’ 10 – but greater efficiency has yet to convey any advantage.
Alex Brundle (Morgan-Nissan) leads the LMP2 class, in ninth overall, while the GT-Pro battle was separated by Le Mans’ multiple safety car system. After Simonsen’s accident, Darren Turner (Aston Martin), Romain Dumas (Porsche 911) and Rob Bell (Aston) were grouped behind the first safety car, with rivals trapped some distance behind.
Turner has so far led the class from the start, with Marco Cioci (Ferrari 458) leading the GTE-Am division after Wolf Henzler (Porsche 911) was slowed by a left-rear puncture.
There is a numb feeling in the paddock as the race continues. Simonsen is the first driver to die at the Circuit de la Sarthe since Frenchman Sébastien Enjolras, who was killed during the Le Mans test weekend in 1997.