Toyota held the upper hand after four hours of racing in the 85th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, as Porsche hit serious trouble with its #2 car.
Kamui Kobayashi took over from Mike Conway in the #7 Toyota in the third hour and was quickly able to extend the gap over the sister TS050 Hybrid driven by Anthony Davidson.
The two leading Toyotas had been evenly matched in the opening two hours as Conway and Sebastien Buemi battled closely, but after the first round of the driver changes it was Kobayashi who put his stamp upon the leaderboard.
Nick Tandy emerged from the fourth pitstop of the race at the start of the fourth hour just ahead of Davidson’s Toyota after a quicker in-lap paid dividends. But the 2015 Le Mans winner was unable to stabilise the gap to Kobayashi, who surged to a 40-second lead as the fifth hour began.
The second Porsche, which has a relatively quiet opening to the race, pitted after three and a half hours when it lost front-axle drive and necessitated the Earl Bamber-driven 919 Hybrid to be wheeled back in to the garage, where it remained at the four-hour mark, nine laps down.
This ensured the third Toyota moved in to fourth place with Jose Maria Lopez undertaking his first race stint in the car having taken over from Nicolas Lapierre.
LMP2: Rebellion in dominant position
In the LMP2 category, the Rebellion Racing squad enjoyed a fruitful opening to the race as its pair of Oreca 07s ran 1-2 after opening stints by Bruno Senna and Nelson Piquet Jr were solidified by their respective teammates Nicolas Prost and Mathias Beche.
Beche initially closed in on Prost but was baulked by the DragonSpeed Oreca and lost five seconds.
However, the Swiss driver came back at the sister car and got within striking distance before he had to relinquish the cockpit to the #13 crew’s silver driver, David Heinemeier Hansson.
However, after Prost handed over to Julien Canal, it was Heinemeier Hansson who enjoyed a 10.5 second gap in the lead.
Leading the chase of the Rebellion cars was the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing car, which survived a brief off by Thomas Laurent.
The LMP2 polesitting G-Drive Racing Oreca had a brief nightmare race with Roman Rusinov losing time on the opening hour and then colliding with Khaled Al Quibasi’s GTE Am Proton Porsche.
The pair both hit the barriers at the exit of the Porsche Curves after Rusinov failed to make a clean pass, bringing out a long Slow Zone as part of the barrier required repairs.
Both cars retired because of the incident despite both eventually making it back to the pits, and Rusinov was summoned to the stewards to discuss the incident.
The fourth Slow Zone of the race was caused by Francois Perrodo, who nudged the Indianapolis tyre wall in the #28 TDS Oreca. The car re-joined after a front bodywork change.
GTE: Ford takes the lead
The long-time LMGTE Pro-leading Aston Martin lost the lead midway through the fourth hour after a left-rear puncture caused a lengthy stop for the Marco Sorensen-driven #95 Vantage.
The sister #97 Aston driven by Daniel Serra took over the lead, but was hunted down by a charging Harry Tincknell in the #67 Ford GT.
The British driver had scythed his way through the field after taking over from Andy Priaulx in the third hour, despatching James Calado’s Ferrari and Michael Christensen’s Porsche as he did so.
Tincknell was lining up Serra but a move was put on hold as he pitted to handover to Pipo Derani. The Ford GT emerged from the pits and engaged in a thrilling battle with the #69 car driven by Ryan Briscoe, which it held off for third place.
As the clock ticked past four hours of racing it was the out-of-sequence #66 Ford GT driven by Billy Johnson which held a slender 1.7s lead over the #97 Aston Martin, now driven by Jonny Adam.
Derani was a further two seconds back as a three-way scrap for the lead played out.
The GTE Am class saw a switch around from the first hour with the #98 works Aston Martin emerging in the lead from the third hour onwards.
Paul Dalla Lana took over from Pedro Lamy, but was unable to resist the advances of Dries Vanthoor in the JMW-entered Ferrari 488 GTE, which went through and started to establish a gap.
Third in the Am class was the #62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE in the hands of Cooper MacNeil.