Thursday night marked the last chance for teams to win pole position for the 24 hours of Le Mans. Threatened by approaching thunderstorms, what looked set to be a dash for the cash turned out to be somewhat of a dull final qualifying in which no one came close to the times put down by Porsche the night before.
Most of the fastest times set on Wednesday stood as the chequered flag flew at midnight. A dirty track and high temperatures slowed down the lap times just enough to protect the fastest times and allow teams to concentrate on setting up the car for the big race. Neel Jani’s record breaking lap time of 3:16.887 was therefore enough to start the race from the front in the Porsche 919 Hybrid shared with Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb.
Riley Motorsports’ SRT Viper in GTE-Am was one of few cars that saw an improvement, jumping from seventh to fourth in class. A good beginning of the weekend for the team that had to withdraw last minute from the 2014 24 hours due to financial difficulties at SRT, saw Chrysler pull their factory support for the Viper GTS-R altogether at the end of 2014, and didn’t do a single race with the GT2-spec Viper this season yet.
Taking the pole was a first since 1997 for Porsche and the first pole for a full works Porsche since 1988 when the Germans locked out the front row as well. With all three cars leading the fastest Audi by over one second, dominance in qualifying is not an understatement.
Nissan, meanwhile, keeps getting faster and faster, although without a fully working hybrid system and no AWD the Indianapolis-based team is nowhere near the other factory LMP1’s. At midnight, two of the three unconventional GT-R LM Nismo’s were faster than the LMP2’s, with the third Nissan right on the heels of the LMP2 pole winning KCMG Oreca 05-Nissan.
“We continue to make progress every time we go out on track,” said Nissan’s LMP1 Technical Director Ben Bowlby. “We’ve gone faster with each session, despite dealing with red flags, slow zones and changeable weather conditions. We got some good dry running in today, though, and this has helped us a lot. Remember that we are tuning the car for Le Mans and developing the car, all at the same time. We’ve got to the end of qualifying with three cars in one piece and a tonne of data, so I’m happy with that.”
While the fastest GT-R qualified in twelfth place, on Friday the ACO announced that all three Nissans would be starting from the back of the LMP grid. The reason? The cars didn’t manage a lap time within 110-percent of the pole lap time.
In GT, Aston Martin Racing took pole position in both GTE-Pro and GTE-Am. For awhile both the Am and the Pro Vantage V8’s occupied the first two spots on the combined GT starting grid, until AF Corse’s lead Ferrari 458 Italia of Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Gianmaria Bruni jumped in between the two British cars. That, however, was as fast as the Italians could go, securing GTE-Pro pole position for the trio of Fernando Rees, Alex MacDowall and Richie Stanaway.
As Porsche’s LMP1’s were flying, the Porsche Team Manthey 991 RSR’s were struggling to find speed. Qualifying no better than seventh, the 2013 winners are still hopeful their race setup work will pay out during the race.
“The qualifying went well but the performance wasn’t what we’d hoped for,” said Porsche pilot Patrick Pilet. “Still, I expect we’ll be able to push in the race and make up positions. ”
Not making the grid tomorrow is the number 63 Corvette C7R. Near the end of the second qualifying session a stuck throttle caused a heavy crash at the high speed Porsche Curves and brought an end to that car’s Le Mans campaign. Driver Jan Magnussen remained unharmed in this fierce crash, but the Dane’s car sustained too much damage to be repaired in time. This leaves the number 64 Corvette of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor as the sole defender of Chevrolet’s honour in GTE-Pro.
The weekend so far reflects the first two races in the FIA World Endurance Championship, and that might not bode well for Porsche. Just like in Silverstone and just like in Spa-Francorchamps, the Weissach squad occupied the front row, with Audi in pursuit. These two races also showed that Audi doesn’t need outright speed to compete, instead relying on a constant pace, minimizing mistakes and time lost in the pits, to take the win.
Porsche might have the upper hand for now, when the French flag flies come Saturday 15:00 hours, they will have to do a hell of a job to keep Audi from winning this year’s 24 hours of Le Mans.
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