Both TOYOTA GAZOO Racing TS050 HYBRIDs were at the head of the field when the 88th Le Mans 24 Hours reached its six-hour mark.
TS050 HYBRID #8 drivers Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, winners of the race for the past two years, and Brendon Hartley held an unexpected lead after six hours, despite losing time due to a puncture and brake duct cleaning at two pit stops.
The pole position #7 of World Championship leaders Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López held the advantage throughout most of the first quarter of the race, but lost time through no fault of their own due to a pit stop under the safety car. Their nearest challenger, the #1 Rebellion, was a lap behind in third.
Mike led the field away at the start and he immediately began building a cushion for the #7, while Sébastien, who started third in the #8, fought throughout the opening lap for second place with the #1 Rebellion.
At the first fuel stops, Sébastien jumped the #1 Rebellion into second but at the end of the first hour, he made an unscheduled pit stop due to a left rear puncture, dropping to fourth, a minute off the lead. While Mike extended his advantage, Sébastien soon got past both Rebellion cars and into second.
With the two TS050 HYBRIDs now pitting half a stint apart, they alternated the on-track lead during the fuel stops, but that did not reflect the race situation; the #7 held consistent advantage of close to one minute.
A quick pace from both cars continued when Kamui and Brendon close to the three-hour point, took over their respective cars, with new Michelin tyres. With temperatures running a little high, the brake ducts on the #8 were cleaned at their stop, costing around 20secs.
Traffic and slow zones caused the gap between Kamui and Brendon to fluctuate but they pulled out a one-lap cushion over the third-placed #1 Rebellion. Early in the sixth hour, the next driver changes saw the #8 again take an additional 30secs to clean brake ducts whilst Kazuki took the wheel.
That left José in the #7 with a 90-second lead as the quarter distance mark approached. But a safety car, after 5hrs 45mins for a GT accident, came at an unfortunate time for the #7. José had to pit for more fuel and was held at the end of the pit lane for more than two minutes, leaving Kazuki with a slender lead at the six-hour mark with the race still behind the safety car.
Mike Conway (TS050 HYBRID #7): “My first stint went pretty well right from the start. I was side by side with the #1 Rebellion going into turn one; we both kept it clean so it was very fair. I stayed in front although I could see the Rebellion was quick early on, so I pushed to pull a gap. In the middle of my stint the car balance was a bit difficult but it improved again towards the end. So we have been chasing the balance a little as the track conditions and temperatures evolved.”
Kamui Kobayashi (TS050 HYBRID #7): “My stint was pretty challenging with all the traffic and lots of incidents. I had some bad luck with slow zones and lost quite a bit of time, particularly one which cost me 30 seconds. The traffic was really tough as well with so many cars on track so my priority was to stay out of danger. There is a long way to go so we need to just keep going like this.”
Sébastien Buemi (TS050 HYBRID #8): “The conditions were good, surprisingly, considering that at the beginning of the week we were expecting lots of rain. At the beginning of the race I was behind the Rebellion then I had the puncture, so I didn’t have the chance to fight with car #7. Then we lost time at the pit stops with the brake duct cleaning, so it’s been a hectic start. I hope it will be a bit calmer and we can have a nice fight with the #7.”
Brendon Hartley (TS050 HYBRID): “Unfortunately we have had a temperature issue with the front brakes on one side so we have had to manage that. We lost time at both driver changes because we were trying to get some rubber out of one of the ducts. That is compromising our car a bit but we are still in the fight and there’s a long way to go. It felt good to be racing here again, and for the first time in the TS050 HYBRID. My stint was early in the race so I took it safe, no mistakes.”