24H Le Mans, 4 Hours: Calderon & Gatting recover through crazy wet start
In the craziest Le Mans 24H start, the rain shuffled positions across the field, with Tatiana Calderon making her way through the LMP2 grid and gained many positions, as Michelle Gatting also had a solid triple-stint before handing over to Sarah Bovy for her Le Mans debut.
In on of the craziest openings of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the first hours of the legendary race saw the #7 Toyota of Mike Conway maintaining the overall lead in very challenging conditions, as the rain had started to fall over the 13.626 km-long Circuit de La Sarthe approximately one hour before the flag dropped to signal the start of the 89th edition of the most famous endurance racing event in the world. While the pole-sitting Hypercar held the lead, the #8 Toyota was hit at the first chicane by the #708 Glickenhaus of Olivier Pla, which sent Sebastien Buemi into a spin and dropped the Swiss driver all the way down the order, receiving a 10 second penalty. Buemi had another contact with a LMP2 entry at Arnage and had to pit to check for damages. This paved the way for the Alpine of Nicolas Lapierre, who initially chased down the leading Toyota, but then spun at Indianapolis corner. Meanwhile, many other drivers were finding the grip conditions particularly challenging and spun into the gravel - among them the #48 IDEC LMP2 Oreca, the #33 TF Sport Aston Martin and Kevin Estre in the #92 LMGTE-Pro Porsche. In the top GTE class, in fact, the two Chevrolet Corvette took an early lead, before a stunning 3-way battle for P1 saw Molina (#52 AF Corse Ferrari) overtaking Tommy Milner (#64 Corvette), closely followed by Laurens Vanthoor (#79 Weathertech Porsche) in the second hour. Amidst all the chaos, Tatiana Calderon - who took the start in the #1 Richard Mille Racing Oreca - had a brilliant first stint and gained nine positions in LMP2 class, having started from 23rd on the grid. In the #85 Iron Lynx Ferrari, the all-female team of Iron Dames also made up a couple of positions with Michelle Gatting behind the wheel of the Ferrari 488 GTE: the Dane started from 17th position in GTE-AM, and pitted from P16 for her first stop of the day on lap 12. As the track dried up quickly - but still with very tricky damp sections - the Duqueine #30 LMP2 car of Memo Rojas was the first to venture out on slick tyres: the Mexican had a moment on his out lap, but soon after he would be followed by most of the field. Antonio Felix Da Costa (#38 Jota LMP2 Oreca) advanced into second place overall, but Buemi was charging back and regained second place after 2 hours of racing. The Glickenhaus also were having a messy start of their maiden 24-hour race: after a few contacts, a spin in the pit entry by the #709 of Westbrook and more issues, the two American hypercars dropped to 16th and 14th overall. Three hours into the race, the two Toyota hypercars led the overall classify, with Conway ahead of Buemi and the Alpine of Negrao - who took over from Lapierre after a double-stint - in third place. Felix Da Costa led in LMP2 in the #38 Jota entry, with Nyck De Vries (#26 GDrive Aurus) second after completing a great pass on former F1 racer Robert Kubica in the opening hour. Giedo van der Garde made it to third place in class in the #29 Racing Team Nederland. Tatiana Calderon completed a double-stint and handed over to Beitske Visser, as the Dutchwoman rejoined the race in P16 in class after a very promising first part of the race.
The two AF Corse duo of Pier Guidi and Serra led the GTE-Pro pack during the third hour, with Bamber taking over from Vanthoor in the Weathertech Porsche. In GTE-AM, after the first lap spin, the TF Sport Aston of Felipe Fraga recovered the class leadership from the early pace setters - the Cetilar Racing Ferrari of Antonio Fuoco. Michelle Gatting had her first triple-stint in the #85 Iron Dames Ferrari and ran cleanly up to P11 in class during the pit stop phases.
With the third hour approaching, the rain returned to fall - quite heavily in some parts of the track, while other corners remained dry. This resulted in several cars going off track again, and the most notable victim was the #38 JOTA driven by Anthony Davidson: the LMP2 leader was caught off guard and ended in the gravel at the Dunlop chicane, just seconds after the #18 Absolute Racing Porsche. Positions changed in LMP2, with Robert Kubica temporarily moving into P1 before the pitstop - as 18-year old Franco Colapinto brought the G-Drive Aurus into the lead. Many teams used the slow zone to pit - opting again for slicks - and Michelle Gatting handed over to Sarah Bovy, as the Belgian racer made her Le Mans debut. Bovy rejoined in 14th place but quickly recovered to 12th. Approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes into the race, the first Safety Car of the 89th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was deployed for Marcos gomes' huge crash at the entry of Indianapolis corner: the #98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage went off at speed and into the barriers. The Brazilian was out of the car under his own power, albeit appearing - understandably - a bit shaken. Despite the damage to the tyre-barrier and the bent armco, the race resumed relatively quickly. At the end of the fourth hour, Kamui Kobayashi had taken over from Conway and held the overall lead, ahead of the sister #8 car of Brendon Hartley - now only 9 seconds behind compared to the 2 and a half minutes prior to the neutralization. Andre Negrao followed in third with the Alpine hypercar; the Glickenhaus recovered to P9 and P13 overall. Tom Blomqvist leads LMP2 (#28 JOTA) at the four hour mark, followed by the #23 United Autosport driven by Wayne Boyd and the Panis Racing of James Allen. Franco Colapinto lost a position after going wide at Mulsanne and is now 4th in the G-Drive entry. The ARC Bratislava LMP2 Oreca of Miroslav Konopka came to a halt at the pit entry after being spun around in the Porsche corners and brought out a slow zone, but has since then made its way back to the pits. Beitske Visser has been battling for position around P11 and P14, and is currently P13 in the Richard Mille Racing prototype. Sarah Bovy is continuing her progression and is sitting in eleventh position in GTE-AM.