24H Le Mans, 20H: Iron Dames continue impressive recovery
20 hours in, 4 to go: in spite of misfortunes, the Iron Dames are putting up a fight and they back in the top-10.
The last hours of the night saw the sudden battle for the overall lead between the #7 and #8 Toyota hypercars - then quickly settled when the Nakajima had to pit for a new nose and lost over 2 minutes to Lopez. At the same time, the first hours of the morning were all about the battles for third place: both the overall podium, with the #36 Alpine and the #708 Glickenhaus putting up an exciting on-track fight; the #65 Panis Racing and the #28 JOTA also trading third place in LMP2 class; and the GTE-Pro Porsche fighting for third until a team order to swap places. It wasn't the scenic gloden-tinted sunrise that we've often witnessed at the French circuit, as the sun remained hidden behind the clouds and the fog soon engulfed the racetrack. Still, the 17th and 18th hours were the most closely fought since the crazy opening stages: first, Blomqvist (JOTA) made the best use of the Glickenhaus' slipstream on the Hunaudiers straight to pass the Panis Racing Oreca, as the French squad fought back. Amidst the traffic, the battle raged on, until the #28 Jota completed the move and went into third place in class and seventh overall. The #72 HUB Auto Racing Porsche slowed down and came to a stop after Turn 1, before Negrao started his own chase of the #708 Glickenhaus, with Pla previously swapping places after the pit stop. The Brazilian overtook the American hypercar, but the two exchanged positions again and remained within less than a second to each other. Negrao eventually re-claimed third. The Iron Dames had an eventful night: having recovered from two tyre punctures, Frey, Gatting and Bovy were ready to chase back the top-ten, before a suspension issue forced Gatting to pit again. The all-female crew lost approximately ten minutes and dropped down the GTE-AM order - but none of them were ready to give up and Le Mans rookie Sarah Bovy went out and completed a solid stint, as did her teammates that incredibly made it back in the top ten in class. In the leading Toyota, Mike Conway pitted and handed over to Kamui Kobayashi - who had a scary moment last night when he avoided an impact with the barriers due to a brake balance issue. But there was more drama for the #8 car: Buemi came to a halt on the Mulsanne straight, performed a reset and restarted. Nevertheless, this problem cost him a lap and has been identified as a fuel issue.
With the leading car now completing only 8-lap stints, it is believed that also the #7 Toyota is suffering from the same issues. Sam Bird crawled back with significant bodywork damage after a puncture slowed down his #52 AF Corse Ferrari. Having lost 22 minutes, he rejoined P5 in GTE-Pro. The category continues to be led by the sister #51 AF Corse car, driven by Ledogar-Pier Guidi-Calado, and the #63 Corvette and the #92 Porsche following. The leading car was wheeled back in the garage, but rejoined in first place after a rather quick brake change.
For the second time, the #88 Proton Porsche made its way back to the pits with a puncture, as well as the #388 Rinaldi Ferrari - with Hook behind the wheel - who had to be recovered from the gravel trap after a contact with Nick Tandy (#64 Corvette). This incident brought out a slow zone and several teams took the opportunity to pit - among them, it was the race leader.
The two Porsche GT Team of Kevin Estre and Frederic Makowiecki battled for third in GTE-Pro, but then the team asked for a position swap and the #92 driven by Estre got through. The LMGTE-AM class top-3 remains unchanged: AF Corse maintains the lead over the #33 TF Motorsport Aston Martin and the Iron Lynx Ferrari.
Just before a late Full Course Yellow for debris was deployed, though, Paolo Ruberti (#60 Iron Lynx) had passed Christian Ried in the #77 Proton Porsche, advancing to fourth.
Sarah Bovy and Rahel Frey alternated again at the wheel of the #85 Ferrari, and ran in tenth for the last hours - and on the same lap of the #18 Absolute Racing ahead - with Michelle Gatting behind the wheel. The Danish racer has moved into P9 in the last 30 minutes after an issue by the #54 AF Corse Ferrari.