TOYOTA GAZOO Racing continues to lead the 87th Le Mans 24 Hours, with both cars battling for victory at the halfway stage of the 2018-2019 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) season finale.
Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López in the #7 TS050 HYBRID led last year’s winners Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso by only 8.6secs after 12 hours of exciting racing at the front of the field. The #3 Rebellion was third, two laps behind.
Over the opening six hours, the #7 TS050 HYBRID had led from pole position, steadily building an advantage over the #8 car on a warm, dry afternoon but the seventh hour began in dramatic fashion, forcing the team to react quickly to changing weather and race conditions.
A brief shower reduced grip and tyre temperatures so Kazuki stopped for new rubber after 98 laps, taking advantage of slow zones to reduce the time lost in pit lane. José in the #7 attempted to do likewise but the track went green just as he was stopping so he lost additional time and the lead.
Soon after, a safety car brought the #7 right on to the tail of the race leader and José soon made his move and overtook Kazuki. His lead did not last long; a trip through the gravel at Mulsanne corner cost a few seconds and allowed Kazuki back into the lead.
At the next driver change, early in the ninth hour, Mike resumed a fraction of a second in front of Sébastien in the #8, which had pitted two laps earlier, and there was little to separate them until the 10th hour. The gap grew when a GT accident saw the two TS050 HYBRIDs held behind different safety cars, costing the #8 more than a minute.
While the #8 suffered through a safety car on that occasion, it benefited soon after. Sébastien pitted under green flag conditions but two laps later Mike had no choice but to make his scheduled stop behind the safety car, wiping out his lead and putting the #7 in second, directly behind its sister car.
An intense battle continued through the halfway point, with Kamui in the #7 leading Fernando in the #8.
José María López (#7 TS050 HYBRID): “My stint was okay but I am a bit disappointed. We lost a minute and a half with a safety car, then more in a slow zone. It was a nice fight with car #8 and I was pulling away until I went wide. I was struggling a bit with the tyres and it took me a few laps to get comfortable again. I took some margin after that. We are in a close race and it will continue to be a good fight, I am sure over the second half of the race.”
Kazuki Nakajima (#8 TS050 HYBRID): “There was quite a lot of action during my stint and the gap between us and the sister car changed quite a bit with the safety cars and slow zones. I just kept my head down and concentrated on a clean stint without risks. The gap is relatively small at the moment and many things can happen; there’s a long way to go still but I’m happy with how it’s gone so far.”