It’s been sixteen years since Audi, Toyota, Nissan and Porsche last raced against each other in Le Mans. The battle lines back then were drawn differently: Audi was just a newcomer to endurance racing, entering for the very first time. Porsche didn’t enter a works team in the top class after winning the year before, but was represented by customer teams in GT. Nissan, plagued by financial difficulties, tried to win the race one more time before pulling out. And Toyota was, then as now, still looking for that illusive first 24 hours of Le Mans win. As the excitement mounts for the green flag on Saturday, qualifying got underway yesterday.
It didn’t take very long for the qualifying record on the 13.629 kilometre long course to fall. Timo Bernard needed only a couple of minutes to improve on the 2008 pole time, while Neel Jani moments later even bettered it to set the time at 2:16.887, both Porsche 919 Hybrids taking advantage of an almost clear track. Nothing much changed after the opening ten minutes, handing the first three provisional starting spots to all three Porsches, followed by the three Audi R18 e-tron quattro’s, and the still struggling Toyota TS040 Hybrids a great six seconds slower than the fastest Porsche.
With thunderstorms in the forecast for Thursday’s night qualifying, teams were forced to go all out in the opening qualifying session, resulting in blistering lap times. The speed, however, was found not on the long straights, but in the corners, due to a focus on corner speeds as the new technical regulations mainly focus on fuel-flow.
“I was the first one in our car in qualifying,” provisional pole sitter Jani said. “Of course, we had to tick off the list the five mandatory night laps. My initial lap was good, but not perfect because it wasn’t entirely clear. That it was still the fastest lap of the day and a qualifying record is very pleasing. But I know this wasn’t the maximum, and we have to wait to see what happens in the other qualifying sessions.”
Nissan was, as expected, nowhere near the front of the field, only equalling the LMP2 front runners in lap times as the US-based, Japanese team is still in the development stage of the unconventional GT-R LM Nismo. Still, though, the lap times keep improving despite running without input from the electric motors that the car has been designed around.
“We’re moving forward and making good progress,” Nismo racer Jann Mardenborough commented. “The car feels more and more sorted with each run and there are still a lot of things we can do to improve it, such as dropping the front ride height to work better with the aero tunnels.”
Richard Bradley set a superb lap time in the KCMG Oreca 05-Nissan of 3:38.032 to take provisional pole in LMP2. Only Jon Lancaster got close in the Greaves Gibson 015S-Nissan, but had to settle for second with the two frontrunning LMP2’s separated by nearly a second and the fastest Nissan LMP1.
In the darkness of Circuit de la Sarthe it was Aston Martin Racing who grabbed the GT pole positions in both Pro and Am classes. Richie Stanaway was just a fraction faster than Aston Martin GTE-Am colleague Pedro Lamy, who managed to mix it up with the GTE-Pro’s.
As the Aston Martin Vantage V8’s were shining, Porsche was having a hard time getting a clean run. Marred by traffic, red and yellow flags and a dirty track, only Porsche Team Manthey works driver Jörg Bergmeister made it into the top ten with a ninth place in GTE combined and seventh in GTE-Pro.
“We still need to improve, of course,” number 92 Porsche Team Manthey 991 RSR pilot Patrick Pilet commented. “As long as it stays dry tomorrow we have many chances to achieve a better lap time. But first and foremost we want to improve the balance of the car with regard to the race.”
The big question for Thursday night’s qualifying session is if it stays dry indeed. If not, and it seems likely that it doesn’t, the field is set. If it does stay dry, times might creep up to the outright track lap record: 3:13.9 set in 1971 by Pedro Rodríguez in the legendary Porsche 917.