The pole-sitting No 7 Toyota continued to lead the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours as the race passed the 18th hour milestone, with the sun just starting to rise on an unsurprising one-two for the defending race champions.
Toyota may have been in a race of their own, but at least the battle between them was actually a race, albeit one that was being dictated by the safety car. After an unusually conservative start from Sebastien Buemi as opposed to the ultra-aggressive style of Mike Conway, the No 7 pole-sitting car was able to build a near 50-second lead over the first three hours.
What seemed an unusual race of low attrition soon became the dramatic affair as drivers started to make mistakes as the sun set, not least the No 88 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche that was at the heart of four separate incidents in as many hours.
It was the 58-year-old amateur driver Satoshi Hoshino who was at the wheel for all of them, spinning off three times during his first stint - including out of the GTE Am lead - before colliding heavily with the No 64 Corvette, sending Marcel Fassler into the concrete wall on the outside of Porsche Curves 3 and into retirement.
Fassler was shaken by the impact but later confirmed as in good health, and stewards took the decision to punish the Corvette driver for the incident, fining him 7,000 euros and hitting the Swiss with six penalty points on his licence. However, the multiple offs had also shaken Hoshino to the point that he was no longer comfortable continuing, forcing the No 88 to withdraw.
As the US saying goes, “cautions breed cautions”, and at Le Mans safety cars tend to breed safety cars, which initially played right into the hands of the No 8 as they initially caught the lead sister car before a second safety car period for the No 54 Spirit of Race Ferrari spinning off handed Kazuki Nakajima the lead, having taken over from Fernando Alonso.
Kamui Kobayashi quickly put the No 7 back in front, before Jose Maria Lopez and Kazuki Nakajima traded blows as they took turns to lead the race. Lopez was struggling though, running wide twice to take trips across the gravel, and he was also the victim of losing a minute in the pits when a safety car period fell kindly for the No 8 car.
The three early overnight safety cars not only had a major say on the lead, but also on teams challenging further down the field in what proved a devastating 20-minute period for Aston Martin Racing. Having already seen the No 98 GTE Am car of Dalla Lana/Lamy/Lauda retire with a mechanical issue after early power steering and engine troubles, the No 97 of Alex Lynn spun off coming out of the Porsche Curves, ripping off the rear wing in the process, before the pole-sitting GTE Pro No 95 went off at high speed with Marco Sorensen at the wheel. The Dane lost control on entry to the kink before Indianapolis, careering off the track and into the tyre wall that destroyed the car and required him a trip to the medical centre for a checkover, but thankfully like Fassler he would get the all clear. Suddenly, Aston Martin’s hopes lay with the No 97 that returned to the track last in class.
The third safety car period was perhaps the most dramatic though as the No 17 SMP Racing BR1 repeated Lynn’s error as Egor Orudzhev crashed out of third place after colliding with the tyre barrier at the Porsche Curves, ending their race in the process and promoting the No 3 Rebellion of Thomas Laurent, Gustavo Menezes and Nathanael Berthon to third, four laps off the lead. But a three-minute stop-and-go penalty for the No 3 car saw the No 11 SMP Racing entry sneak into third place, and the Swiss team's cause got even worse when Menezes span off challenging the SMP before a mechanical failure sent it back into the pits.
There would be further problems during the night for the No 49 ARC Bratislava LMP2 and No 4 ByKolles Racing LMP1 that brought out further safety car periods, but a superb second stint from Conway put the No 7 Toyota back in front as he pulled away from Buemi, before Kobayashi continued to strong performance out in front to lead a struggling Alonso by a minute and 22 seconds. Throughout the morning, Toyota have settled into formation flying as the No 7 has amintained the gap to the No 8 at just over a minute with no further dramas to report.
What was a neck-and-neck battle in LMP2 between the No 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca and No 36 Signatech Alpine became a rather distant affair as they were split by different safety cars, resulting in the WEC LMP2 championship leader falling behind by more than two minutes as the halfway mark ticked by. Behind them, the No 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing and No 31 DragonSpeed continued their race-long battle for third place as both remained on the lead lap.
However, the No 37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca that was running in a solid fifth position was forced to retire just shy of the 14-hour mark when the gearbox catastrophically failed in the middle of the Porsche Curves, sending fifth gear straight through the casing and ending their race immediately. The No 31 DragonSpeed soon joined them as Pastor Maldonado crashed heavily at Tertre Rouge, ending their race immediately.
But the big drama would follow. The No 38 initially looked in trouble as it suffered a puncture to fall back off the lead pair, but the G-Drive was forced into a 20-minute stop with a starter motor failure shortly after the start of the 19th hour, handing a comfortable one-lap lead to the Signatech Alpine and dropping the long-time leaders down to eight place in LMP2 in what was a cruel blow to their hopes.
By now it was no surprise to see the safety car spoils what was a gripping battle in GTE Pro, which until the drama broke out saw the top eight split by under 10 seconds after four hours of racing.
However, after the No 63 Corvette overhauled the doomed No 95 Aston Martin early on, the American outfit was reeled in and passed by the No 92 Porsche and No 51 Ferrari, who both managed to work the pit-stop strategy to break away under the safety cars and put a minute gap between themselves and the bulk of the GTE Pro field.
Yet the two-horse race become one when the No 92 was wheeled back into the garage shortly after 4am local time, with the Porsche cracking an exhaust that required changing to drop the Kevin Estre-driven car from first to 12th in class and five laps off the lead. It did however promote the No 93 and No 91 Porsches up the order to second and third respectively to continue the fight against Ferrari.
But the most likely challenger to them is the resurgent No 63 Chevrolet, with the American outfit swapping the lead with the Ferrari at every pit stop.
Perhaps the most surprising class leader was the No 85 Keating Motorsports Ford, who took the lead from the sole remaining No 77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche early on and maintained the gap at more than two minutes until the second-placed car was forced to go into the garage.
That promoted the No 90 TF Sport Aston Martin up to second, just in front of the No 84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari as the Dempsey-Proton Porsche dropped down to eight before returning to the track, but just before the end of the 14th hour Euan Hankey beached the TF Sport Aston Martin in the Mulsanne Corner gravel trap to drop out of the running and allow the No 56 Team Project 1 Porsche back into the podium positions.
The No 56 has since overtaken the JMW Motorsport entry to move up to second place.