Le Mans race wide open after chaotic first six hours
By Damien Smith
Sunday 11th June, 2023 - 6:25am
A quarter of the way through the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans and the race is wide open, after one of the most incident-packed and thrilling opening salvos in the event’s 100-year history.
All five of the major manufacturers in Hypercar – Ferrari, Toyota, Porsche, Cadillac and Peugeot – have led the race after six hours of gripping dogfights, collisions and drama.
At 22:00 EST, the #75 Penske Porsche 963 driven by Nick Tandy led the race having completed 74 laps, but less than two seconds ahead of the #51 Ferrari of Alessandro Pier Guidi.
The #50 Ferrari of Nicklas Nielsen was a further 10 seconds back in third, ahead of Loic Duval in the #94 Peugeot 9×8 and the #2 Cadillac of Alex Lynn.
The two Toyotas of Brendon Hartley in #8 and Jose Maria Lopez in #7 were only sixth and seventh, but had just pitted from first and second.
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The team reports its only error so far was getting caught at the end of the pit lane after stopping at the end of the second Safety Car period.
Any one of these cars could end up winning the race – although the same could be said for a number behind them too.
As the two Ferrari 499Ps led away at the start, Sébastien Buemi locked up into the Dunlop chicane in his mission to hit the front.
The #8 Toyota took the lead further around the lap on the run to Indianapolis, passing the pole-winning #50 Ferrari of Nicklas Nielsen.
But there was disaster for the Action Express Cadillac as Jack Aitken lost control out of the first chicane on the Mulsanne, the car snapping left and into the barrier.
Aitken nursed the car back to the pits repairs, but the Caddy lost 16 laps before rejoining and has yet to make up much of its lost ground.
The barrier damage triggered the first of two Safety Car periods so far, offering the first chance to see the World Endurance Championship’s convoluted new regulations in action, as the race director organised each class into order.
But after nearly 40 minutes running under the safety car, the race finally burst into life – and then some.
The two Toyotas fought the Ferrari pair over the rest of the opening hour as Buemi opened a gap. The racing was frantic as teams worked to differing pit strategies, the offset among all the teams leading to regular changes of order at the top of the leader board.
In the second hour, the use of yellow flag slow zone system was called into action for two separate accidents involving LMP2 cars, one of which triggered a collision involving two GTEs and the #3 Cadillac Hypercar driven by Sebastien Bourdais.
The Frenchman, who had run as high as second, was rear-ended by a Ferrari GTE in the slow zone, causing rear-end damage. The Caddy was also delayed in the fifth hour by a stop-go penalty for a technical infringement, but was still in eighth place at quarter distance.
In contrast, at the start of Hour 3, the #2 Cadillac driven by Earl Bamber had risen briefly to the lead before the pitstop cycle lifted Buemi back to the top, as remarkable battles played out among the Porsche 963s and Ferrari 499Ps.
Among the most alarming of the string of accidents occurred after three hours and 40 minutes, when Fredy Lubin’s United Autosports LMP2 ORECA slammed into Mikkel Pedersen’s Proton Porsche 911 out of Tertre Rouge, triggering yet another slow zone. Neither driver was injured in the heavy impact.
About 10 minutes later the weather turned as the threatened rain hit the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Havoc ensued at the Porsche Curves as a number of cars slithered off, including the battle-scarred #3 Caddy now driven by Scott Dixon.
The six-time IndyCar champion got away with his moment, although Lilou Wadoux in the Richard Mille AF Corse Ferrari 488 wasn’t so lucky. Her car was too damaged to continue after her accident.
The chaos and inconsistent weather triggered the second Safety Car interruption, which lasted all the way through the fourth hour, as Gustavo Menezes found himself in the lead in his #94 Peugeot 9X8, the avante garde racer causing one of the many surprises in this race by its pace.
Racing resumed after more than an hour and half under the Safety Car, as Yifei Ye stormed to the front in his Jota customer Porsche 963.
The Hertz-sponsored car made a clean break as incredible dices continued to play out behind him. But the Chinese driver then overcooked it and spoilt his great work with a side-on crash in the Porsche Curves.
Ye managed to make it back to the pits for repairs, but the incident has lost Jota four laps.
All three Penske-run Porsches have starred on occasion, although both the #5 and #6 963s have suffered delays.
Kevin Estre in #6 picked up a sudden right-rear puncture coming out of the first chicane on the Mulsanne, while the #5 driven by stopped briefly out on circuit and lost a lap.
But with the new American-style Safety Car rules, which allow delayed cars to gain back laps, the crews know there is still much to gain with three-quarters of the race to run.
As the race moves into its seventh hour, heavy rain has returned.