It’s a battle royale at Le Mans: at the halfway point, Porsche out front

All Photos by Laurent Charniaux, Copyright 2015

LE MANS, France -- At the midway point of the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans the two German marques are battling "tooth and nail" for the penultimate endurance race title with four of the six factory cars swapping leads during the first half of the race on Circuit du la Sarthe. As the clicked over into the second half of the race, it was the No. 19 Porsche 919 hybrid with Nick Tandy at the wheel leading the field. Close behind were the No. 9 and No. 7 Audi Quattro Hybrids. The two Audis, with Marco Bonanomi and Andre Lotterer, respectively, at the wheel respectively, are a tad over a minute behind the leading Porsche. In fourth place is the No. 17 Porsche that is on the edge of being a lap down to the field. The No. 8 Audi is two laps down to the leader while the No. 18 Porsche is three laps down. The Porsche 919 Hybrid set the pace in qualifying as it captured the top three positions, led by Neel Jani in the No. 18 car with a 3min 16.887sec lap which topped the previous top qualifying time of Stephane Sarrazin in a Pugeot 908 which was set in 2012. While Porsche was busy smashing records, Audi was spending its time testing in readying for the race. It had the  the most laps during the two days of testing and qualifying and though its times were three seconds off the torrid pace set by Porsche the defending Le Mans champs nevertheless filled the four through six slots on the grid. Toyota, the defending WEC-FIA World Endurance Champion, was off the pace set by the two German brands and took positions seven and eight. Newcomer Nissan, although it showed exceptional top end speed on the long Mulsanne straights, was far enough off the pace that stewards required them to start from the back of the grid. When the green flag dropped the Porsches and Audis simply split from the field and went after each other, trading the race lead as often as they pitted. During the first eight hours of the race Loic Duvall in the No. 9 Audi Quattro Hybrid laid down the fastest lap of the race and the fastest lap in the history of the modern configuration of the historic track. Duvall turned a lap just over 3 minutes and 17 second, 154 mph and change average for the 8-plus mile track.  That lap effective topped the previous record of Loic Duvall in the Peugeot 908  by nearly two seconds and the previous all-time fastest lap set in 1971 before the chicanes were added to the Mulsanne straightaway. The pace of the race has been fast and if there is no major yellow, it would appear as if the distance record for the race will also be broken. At this writing the Toyotas are merely filling space and are not able to keep up with the front runners and there is more than a rumor that next year they will return the endurance racing wars with the turbo-charged gasoline engine. However, they are currently going as hard as they can -- but are mired in the back of the pack. So too is the case of the newcomer Nissan team that is gaining valuable experience with its front-engined front drive car, but which is not able to keep up even with the LMP2 cars. In the end it appears as if the winner of the race will be the team that is the most efficient and judicious in their application of pit stop strategy. Currently the Porsche appears to have a small advantage in the number of laps that it can run per tank of gas. However, Audi has performed at near genius level when it comes to managing its pit stop strategy. In the end, all things remaining the same, it should be an interesting final 12 hours.      

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