After the support races, the 'start procedure' began of the 24 hours. This includes flag waving and national anthems and the cars lined up in echelon formation along pit straight. The 'grid girls' this year were accompanied by a smattering of 'grid boys' which is a win for sexual equality. During the grid shenanigans there was a huge crowd of people milling about on the track and it looked like almost as many on the grid as in the grandstands. At 2pm the grid was cleared of the 'throng' and the teams lined up for the official team photo and French national anthem.
Among the celebs attending are Jackie Chan, Jason Statham, Patrick Dempsey and Brad Pitt who would later hold the starting flag. Just as the 're-installation' of the 24 hours trophy was performed, a few spots of rain started to fall and the race director announced a 'wet race' which means free tyre choice. The starting flag itself was delivered by Armée de l’Air rappelling from a helicopter.
Final grid clearance was at 2:21pm and all drivers aboard for installation lap at 2:22pm. The heavens then opened and deluged the circuit just as the celebs were being ushered indoors. The race was started under safety car conditions due to standing water (1st time since 1992 says Tony). The #67 Ford GT was pushed into pit garage with gearbox problems just 5 minutes before the start in a worrying development for Ford. The ByKolles #4 was also in pit box at the start of the race but joined after lap 1 to the back of the 'train' of cars. The #67 finally left the pits two laps down. The #12 Rebellion entered pits and was pushed into pit garage at 3:25pm with water in the engine air-box.
There were problems for #7 Audi at half way mark when it had to do most of a lap at slow speed, finally getting to pitlane. At 6am #6 Toyota, #2 Porsche and #5 Toyota were still on the same lap. Both Rebellions had fallen out of contention. At 6:45 the Corvette #64 with Tommy Milner aboard had a big hit on the tyre wall on the entry to the Dunlop chicane. The barrier required repair and the stricken car needed to be recovered so a slow zone was initiated. Milner thankfully unharmed despite his spectacular accident.
Retirements at 8:19am 46,64,4,51,71,92,91,47,89
At 9am with 6 hours remaining, top 3 in LMP1 (#5 #6 #2) were running close together, as were the top 2 in GTE Pro (#82 and #68) and GTE Am (#62 and #88). At 10am with 5 hours remaining the #36 Alpine was still leading P2 , #82 Ferrari GTE Pro and #62 Ferrari GTE Am. At the head of the field, the two Toyotas and the Porsche #2 still very close.
Nobody could have predicted Nakajima slowing dramatically in the #5 Toyota and then stopping just over the finish line on the penultimate lap in a heart stopping last minute mechanical failure. They had looked so secure and confident right up to that moment. The Toyota team could hardly believe their eyes. The Porsche #2 worked hard to put themselves in a position to take advantage of any weakness at Toyota, but it was a cruel twist of fate for the Japanese manufacturer.
For those curious as to why the Toyota #5 was unclassified, it fell foul of Article 10.15 of the Regulations;
section e) Cars must finish the last lap in under 6 minutes except in case of "force majeure" at Stewards discretion.
#5 had a final lap of 11 minutes 53 seconds