Toyota Gazoo Racing held a clear 1-2 out front as the Fuji round of the FIA World Endurance Championship reached its midway point.
The Japanese manufacturer lost its advantage when SMP Racing elected not to pit one of its LMP1 cars during a first-hour safety car, leaving Jenson Button out front in the No. 11 BR Engineering BR1 AER.
Button pitted shortly after the return to green flag running, releasing the No. 7 Toyota TS050 of Kamui Kobayashi into the lead of the race with his team-mate Sebastien Buemi in second.
Kobayashi started hour two with a four-second gap to the No. 8 car, but that separation closed as the leader survived a few near misses.
These included running out wide in avoidance of a GTE-Am Porsche and then locking up into turn one, almost into the rear of the lapped No. 17 SMP Racing car.
With Buemi right on his tail, Kobayashi pitted midway through hour three to hand over to Mike Conway with a fresh set of tires.
The Briton then set the fastest lap of the race to ensure the No. 7 car emerged ahead of the No. 8 car with Buemi still at the helm once the most recent round of pit stops had played out.
Conway led by 12.5 seconds at the halfway point while the third-placed Rebellion R13 Gibson of Bruno Senna was a lap down and 20 seconds ahead of Button’s co-driver Vitaly Petrov.
In LMP2, Jackie Chan DC Racing’s No. 37 Oreca 07 Gibson extended its early lead with Weiron Tan running out front ahead of team-mate Gabriel Aubry in the No. 38 machine, despite a spin for the Frenchman.
Signatech Alpine ran second ahead of TDS Racing after Nicolas Lapierre made a late-braking pass on Matthieu Vaxiviere into turn one.
The opening half of the GTE-Pro contest was mostly dictated by the No. 82 MTEK-run BMW M8 GTE of Antonio Felix da Costa and Tom Blomqvist, which assumed the lead when both Aston Martins pitted just after the end of the race’s only safety car.
However, the gap between first and second declined in the third hour as Sam Bird charged to within five seconds of Blomqvist in the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE, with overtakes on Porsche’s Michael Christensen and Ford’s Andy Priaulx.
The GTE-Am lead changed hands twice in an exciting battle between the Gulf Racing Porsche 911 RSR and the Spirit of Race Ferrari.
Giancarlo Fisichella first caught and passed Ben Barker in hour two, before Barker’s co-driver Michael Wainwright returned the favor on Thomas Flohr in the next stint.