Porsche, KCMG and Aston Martin went fastest in the LMP1, LMP2 and both GT classes respectively in Wednesday afternoon’s four-hour free practice session for the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours, the first track time of the week.
The circuit was damp from earlier rain, but drying quickly. In the corresponding session last year, in dry conditions and with an air temperature of 24 degrees, the fastest times were as follows: LMP1, #8 Toyota (3:23.652); LMP2, #35 Oak Ligier (3:40.611); GTE Pro, #51 AF Corse Ferrari (3:57.028); GTE Am, #95 Aston Martin (3:57.015)
The #1 Toyota with Buemi at the wheel went straight on at Arnage on its out lap, but there was no damage and it continued back to the pits for the red flag.
The first representative laps from the P1s were in the 3:43s, with the sun out and the track continuing to dry. It wasn’t completely dry yet, though, as the #9 Audi with Albequerque at the wheel went straight on at the first chicane, using the escape road.
Shortly afterwards, the #22 Nissan pulled into pit-in with smoke drifting from under the bonnet. The first of the Nissans to put in a flying lap time was Tsugio Matsuda in the #21 GT-R LM, clocking a 3:55.1 tour.
After 45 minutes, Porsche’s Timo Bernhard got the overall mark down under 3:25 – 3:24.908. Albuquerque bettered that for Audi by a couple of tenths seconds later- 3:24.673. Buemi in the Toyota got a track-limits warning after taking liberties at the Ford Chicane just before the top of the hour.
The #19 Porsche headed to the pits, with Radio Le Mans reporting a GPS fault. And with the first hour in the books, the rain arrived again, bringing an artificial lull to proceedings as most cars that were on track pitted.
After about half an hour, the rain had stopped again and the sun re-emerged, allowing Jann Mardenborough to set the best Nissan time of the session so far – a 3:50.548. The times started to go down once again at the front of the field, too, with Jani putting the #18 Porsche top with a 3:24.5 and then a 3:23.2 – exceeding the best time set in this session last year (on a completely dry track).
A few moments later, however, Bamber in the sister #19 Porsche had a squirrely moment going into the first chicane and went into the gravel. The car pulled up to a stop before hitting the barrier and was back on track within a few minutes.
Matsuda got the #21 Nissan into the LMP1 pack with a 3:40.332 and Harry Tincknell posted the first flier for the #22 soon afterwards – a 3:42.2. An improvement from Tincknell put him into the 3:41s, with Mardenborough making it all three GT-R Nismos in the top 13 soon afterwards thanks to a 3:40.4 in the #23.
Almost halfway through the session, Nick Tandy was the next to top the times, setting a 3:22.8 in the #19 Porsche, but Webber was a few seconds behind in the #17 919 and his 3:22.2 became the new high-water mark. Three minutes later, Lieb popped up second fastest (3:22.4) to make it a Porsche 1-2-3.
Webber bettered his time with a 3:21.796 – 1/100th of a second off the 2014 pole time. Another four tenths were shaved from that next time round despite a substantial baulking in the Ford Chicane from the Larbre Corvette.
With the Porsches into the 3:21s, Audi wasin the 3:23s and 24s and Toyota in the 3:24s and 25s. Marcel Fassler, looking to close the gap, had a big moment in the Porsche Curves: the #7 was caught out over a bump and ran very wide as the Swiss regained full control.
The session was halted with 90 minutes remaining due to the Murphy LMP2 car going off at the Porsche Curves. Additionally, the #13 Rebellion was stopped on the Mulsanne Straight having apparently hit the barrier with Imperatori at the wheel, and now missing a wheel.
Immediately after the green flags flew, Duval was onto a flier, putting the #8 Audi second fastest overall 3:21.950. There were improvements in the times too for Treluyer (#7 Audi), Bonanomi (#9 Audi) and Davidson (#1 Toyota), but with no improvement in position.
And just as it started to get interesting, there wwre reports of ‘strong rain’ in the Porsche Curves. When the track dried again, Dumas on a very quick lap opted to entirely ignore track limits as an AF Corse Ferrari was ahead of him in the Ford Chicane. The car regained the track in a shower of sparks and clocked a 3:21.194 – the fastest time of the session so far, with 20 minutes remaining. Perhaps unsurprisingly though that lap was posted ‘under investigation’ and later deleted.
There was some close running between Brendon Hartley and Rene Rast – the pair looking to be on qualifying simulations, but with a mini race breaking out between the Porsche and Audi. At the end, Duval’s second-place lap stood, with the #17 Porsche fastest (3:21.362) and the #18 third (3:22.819).
The #47 KCMG stopped on the side of the track at the first chicane – which was enough to almost immediately bring out the red flag. before anyone had the chance to set a flying lap. The green flag flew again before too long, and the field was able to start setting representative lap times of around four minutes and four seconds.
This benchmark tumbled rapidly, with first the #43 Sard Morand car clocking a 3:55 and then Estre in the #34 Oak Ligier lowering it to 3:50. Gommendy in the #46 Thiriet (also a Ligier) then did a 3:49.
The KCMG crew got the #47 car back into pitlane after 35 minutes. At the sharp end of the field, Gary Hirsch got into the top time battle, putting the Greaves Gibson ahead of the battling Gommendy and Estre with a 3:46.599.
Mikhail Aleshin was soon also in the lead group and rapid progress from the Russian soon put the #37 BR01 on top of the class with a 3:44.4, Mediani making it an SMP Racing 1-2, eight tenths off his team-mate’s time. Aleshin survived a lurid spin at Tertre Rouge with no damage to anything other than his pride and the longevity of his Michelins.
Ryan Dalziel popped up second-fastest in LMP2 in the #30 (definitely nothing to do with Tequila) Rolling Stone ESM Ligier Honda thanks to a 3:44.5 lap. Richard Bradley then topped the LMP2 times after its early off – and proceeded to be the first man under 3:40 in LMP2 as the session passed the halfway point – 3:39.897.
TDS Racing’s Ludovic Badey popped up with a 3:43 for an Oreca 1-2 and bettered that by a few tenths next time around. Improvements for Dalziel and Jonny Kane put the #30 ESM Ligier HPD and #42 Strakka Dome fourth and fifth before a second red flag intervened, the Murphy Oreca having gone off at the entry to the Porsche Curves with Mark Patterson at the wheel. The driver reported having taken too much speed into the Porsche Curves but was thankfully uninjured.
Gary Hirsch restarted the session with a clip of the kerb and a skip over the gravel and a light kiss on the barrier in the Ford Chicane in the Greaves car. Leo Roussel meanwhile popped up fifth in class in the #29 Pegasus Morgan-Nissan.
With 15 minutes remaining, Laurens Vanthoor posted the fifth-fastest time in LMP2 in the #34 OAK Ligier, but ahead Jon Lancaster bettered the earlier time set by Gary Hirsch in the #41 Greaves Gibson, putting it third fastest with a 3:42.1 tour.
Vanthoor though wasn’t done, a 3:41.311 was good enough for second-fastest in class behind the #47 KCMG Oreca, which held its class-topping position until the end, eclipsing all three of the works Nissans.
There was trouble in the final minutes as David Markozov stopped at Mulsanne corner in the #27 SMP BR01, the car in the gravel on the outside of the exit of the corner and towed to safety under the protection of a Slow Zone.
Porsche for one elected to stay in the garage until the track was dry enough for slicks. That left it to Corvette, Ferrari and Aston Martin to get the ball rolling, with Rees heading the early running courtesy of a 4:13, but the benchmark quickly tumbled closer to the four-minute mark, with Gavin, Mucke and Garcia running 1-2-3 for Corvette, Aston and Corvette respectively.
Gavin left the track and appeared to brush the barrier at Tertre Rouge a short while later, but managed to rejoin with just some rear-wing damage, his best lap before this mishap a 3:58.8. Meanwhile Fred Makowiecki opened Porsche’s account with a 4:00.3 in the #92 911, with Vilander slotting in just a tenth behind to go third in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari.
At almost exactly an hour into the session, the rain returned, putting a hold on lap-time improvements for the time being. Once it had abated around an hour later, Rob Bell was the first to take advantage in the #97 Aston Martin, going second-fastest in class with a 3:59.6.
He then shaved more off to just eclipse Gavin’s earlier effort in the Corvette and go top of GTE Pro as the session approached the halfway point. He wasn’t unseated until Alex MacDowall in the sister #99 car did a 3:58.106 just before the red flag flew.
The track went green again with just over an hour of the session remaining. There was no immediate action from the GTE Pro cars until Garcia put the #63 Corvette third fastest in the class with 50 minutes to go, his time a 3:58.501. Then rain reappeared just as the pace was picking up again.
Patrick Pilet went fourth-quickest in class with 15 minutes of the session to go, setting a 3:58.702 in the #92 Porsche. He went quicker again to snatch third in class from the #63 Corvette with less than 10 minutes remaining. The position changed hands once again before the flag, though, with Mucke getting the #97 Aston back in the top three courtesy of a 3:58.4 lap.
There was then a last-minute improvement with seconds remaining by Milner in the #64 Corvette to put that car into second (3:57.5) behind the #99 Aston, which wound up first in the class with a time of 3:55.895. The other Corvette, the #63 with Ryan Briscoe at the wheel, was stopped on track on the Mulsanne however.
There wasn’t much between the fastest Pro and Am cars early in the session, with Aston heading GTE AM thanks to Mathias Lauda’s 4:00.307 in the #98 Vantage, ahead of a trio of AF Corse Ferraris.
Jeff Segal then unseated the works-blessed cars by going second in the Scuderia Corsa 458 courtesy of a 4:03.799, but as with the other classes a return to wet conditions put paid to improvements at the one-hour mark.
With just over 90 minutes in the bag and the track almost dry again, the #50 Larbre Corvette ran off track in the Esses but later rejoined – Gianluca Roda at the wheel. As with GTE Pro, the drying track didn’t immediately give rise to faster times, with Lauda’s earlier lap continuing to be the fastest, ahead of the #88 Abu Dhabi Porsche and the #53 Riley Viper.
The track went green again with just over an hour of the session remaining, but Peter Mann came briefly to halt at the Esses in the #61 AF Corse Ferrari. Before any of the class top three position could change, heavy rain returned once again.
An improvement was finally registered in the last 10 minutes when Rui Aguas moved the #83 AF Corse Ferrari into third, displacing the Riley Viper to fourth. Pat Long then followed suit, leapfrogging the Ferrari to put the Dempsey Porsche second, while his team-mate Al-Qubaisi in the Abu Dhabi Porsche also improved – as did Ruberti in the Larbre Corvette, shuffling Aguas back to fifth and the Viper to sixth.
The #98 Aston remained first and improved its time before the flag fell to 3:58.783 – quicker than four of the nine GTE Pro runners, with the Dempsey and Abu Dhabi Porsches holding second and third.
Some quotes from the paddock during the session:
Nick Heidfeld (#12 Rebellion R-ONE): “It’s quite positive even though we’ve had so little running with the car. We struggled at the start of the session and with the changing weather conditions we decided to keep one driver in the car and work on a general setup. That’S paid off and it was a good decision, rather than cycling through the drivers. We will do that in the qualifying session. There’s no way to compete with the top three teams, so we are where we expected to be and making progress within our own targets. The Kolles car and the Nissans are our immediate competition and we’ll see how the car performs over 24 hours.”
Wolf Henzler (#92 Manthey Porsche 911): “It’s really too early to give any real feedback. Like everyone we’re out there bedding the car in. We ran some good laps in the dry, but these were not really an indication of where we should be relative to those around us in the class, then it rained. I’m hoping the weather can improve, as this might be our only chance for a good qualifying session.”
Matt Howson (#47 KCMG Oreca-Nissan): “What you’re seeing is the upward progression of this car. We ran the at Silverstone and Spa of course and we didn’t do too much running in the wet at the test weekend, so any wet running we may have to do now is still quite new for us. The car has good straight-line speed, so this suits us, and mechanically we’re strong, though we did have an air pipe off at the rear of the car early in the session, which caused our off. It’s a good car, full stop and so far we’re happy.”