John Falb and Sean Rayhall came from fourth on the grid to take victory for United Autosports in the first of two Road to Le Mans races, as the race-leading Norma retired during the pitstop phase.
After an engine problem in Free Practice 1 required the mechanics to work overnight to get the Ligier JS P3 ready, Falb kept the car in contention with the Pro-rated drivers in the opening stint before handing over to Rayhall in third.
Despite completing only two laps prior to qualifying, Rayhall set a sequence of quick laps and pounced on the lead battle between Martin Rich and Romano Ricci, passing the pair in quick succession on lap nine before pulling away to win by 5.6 seconds from Ricci and Alexandre Cougnaud.
However, the United pair benefited from a disastrous sequence of events for Norma, as both of their front-running cars retired during the pitstop phase.
Polesitter Alex Toril in the No. 3 DKR Engineering Norma briefly dropped behind fellow front-row man Peter Kox at the start, but was soon back ahead and had pulled out a 1.7 second lead by the end of the first lap.
As Kox slipped back into the clutches of M.Racing – YMR team-mates Cougnaud (Ligier) and Yann Ehrlacher (Norma), Toril was allowed to build a comfortable lead of 10 seconds when he backed off for a Slow Zone and was hit by Cougnaud, who had continued at racing speed.
Toril was forced to retire with broken suspension and when Ehrlacher’s car didn’t rejoin from the pits either due to technical problems, Rayhall was presented with a clear shot at the victory.
Rich and Alex Kapadia took third for RLR M Sport to complete a Ligier podium sweep which had appeared distinctly unlikely after qualifying, while Laurent Millara passed Jon Farano on the final lap to take fourth in the second M.Racing – YMR Ligier.
Pre-event championship leaders Colin Noble and Tony Wells could only manage 12th in the Nielsen Racing/Ecurie Ecosse Ligier after Wells was docked five positions on the grid for overtaking under Code 60 in practice.
TF Sport took victory in the GT3 race after a stealthy run from Tom Jackson and Ahmad al-Harthy in the No. 97 Aston Martin Vantage GT3.
Al-Harthy becomes the first Omani driver to stand on the Le Mans podium, while 20-year-old Jackson was making his GT3 debut after a bit-part season in the ELMS last year.
The pair took advantage of a 41-second post-race penalty for on-the-road winners Christoph Ulrich and Maurizio Mediani, when the No. 95 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3 was adjudged to have made a too-short pitstop.
The Ferrari was initially relegated to third at the finish, behind pre-event championship leaders Phil Keen and Lee Mowle, but the No. 7 AMD Tuning Mercedes-AMG GT3 was handed a two-lap penalty and demoted to 13th for pitting outside the allotted window.
This promoted Ulrich and Mediani to second, with Emanuele Busnelli and Fabio Babini taking third and the lead of the championship in the EbiMotors Lamborghini Huracan GT3.
RESULTS: Race 1