Summary: Porsche 1-2 once again at the top of the order, meanwhile G-Drive’s Oreca, #68 Ford and Clearwater Ferrari ran quickest in their respective classes.
Neel Jani’s early 3:19.733 with only 10 minutes run in the first qualifying session handed the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid provisional pole ahead of the 84th Le Mans 24 Hours. Like Free Practice, the top end of P1 ended up being a Porsche 1-2 with Timo Bernhard putting the sister #1 car second with a 3:20.203.
The fastest non Porsche during Qualifying 1, which was heavily disrupted by yellows and slow zones, was the #6 Toyota, which managed a 3:20.737 ahead of the #5, that lost track time after an issue resulted in Sebastien Buemi stopping out on the Mulsanne Straight briefly.
In fifth and sixth sat the two Audis, which had significant mechanical issues. Neither R18 took to the track at the start of the session; the #7 had a fuel connector issue and the #8 experienced a front drivetrain problem.
Both cars managed to complete 20 laps or more during the two-hour session though, but they certainly didn’t showcase front-running pace. The best lap from the pair was a 3:22.462 set by Lucas Di Grassi at the end of the session in the #8, 2.7 seconds off the leading Porsche and four ahead of the quickest of the two Rebellions. Dominik Kraihamer set the R-One’s fastest time in the #13, a 3:26.586.
The ByKolles CLM didn’t take part in the session following the fire during Free Practice in the afternoon.
The session got under way at dot on ten with darkness just starting to descend over La Sarthe – officially a “night” session, but with just enough light remaining for perhaps half an hour’s passable visibility.
In LMP2, all bar three cars were out and running from the get-go. The intermediate period between the end of free practice and start of qualifying proper had been tolerably dry – even sunny. A light misting of drizzle had swept across the track half an hour before the lights turned green, and that was just enough to take the edge off what might have been perfect conditions. Even so, the times from the first batch of meaningful flying laps were already significantly quicker than from before the break.
First to show in LMP2 was Réne Rast in the #26 G-Drive Oreca, posting a 3:38.878, a tenth to the good of Laurens Vanthoor in the #49 Michael Shank Racing Ligier, with Richard Bradley third for the #47 KCMG Oreca.
With fifteen minutes gone, only two P2 runners had yet to set flying laps; the #22 (So24!) and #43 (RGR Sport by Morand), each only managing single out-in laps. It was at about this time that Nico Lapierre clocked 3:38.418 to slip in second-quickest for Signatech Alpine’s #36.
That was how things stood for the best part of half an hour, driver changes notwithstanding. Then came Nelson Panciatici in the #35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine, to oust Lapierre from second with a 3:37.175, just seven one-thousandths behind Rast’s earlier best. Almost immediately, the session was red-flagged for Fisichella, gravel-hopping in the #82 RISI Competizione Ferrari GTE Pro.
The session resumed at 22:43. Notice swiftly followed that the #41 Greaves Ligier and the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca had each been awarded a 10 minute stop-go penalty for not slowing under the red flags during the earlier Free Practice session.
Rémy Striebig in the #28 went for a spin first-time out of the pits as he negotiated the Dunlop Chicane, beaching the car on the exit, and finding it hard to regain the track for several agonising minutes, yellow flags denoting a slow-zone either side of the beached Pegasus Morgan Nissan.
Early into the second hour there was a hairy moment for Jonny Kane in the #42 Strakka Racing Gibson Nissan, taking to the grass at speed on the fast run down towards Tertre Rouge. Kane skilfully controlling the slide and regained the track without further mishap.
For those unclear, the requirement now is that every driver completes a minimum of five full laps in the night, with a best lap that comes within 120% of the average of the best three times set by three cars of different makes in the class, and 110% of the best time set by the fastest car in the category.
Thirteen minutes, lucky for some, into the second hour and we witnessed the first significant improvement in P2 for some while; Roberto Merhi posting a 3:38.182 for the #44 Manor Motorsport Oreca 05 Nissan to move into class fourth. He’d later come under investigation for overtaking through a slow-zone.
There was heavy front and rear-end damage for the Eurasia Motorsport Oreca Nissan #33 after an off for Pu Jun Jin close by the section where Jonny Kane had gone off so harmlessly earlier just minutes before. The car ended up slewed across the track, narrowly being missed by several others until coasting to a halt, there to await the snatch vehicle’s ministrations – session over for the Chinese driver.
Fifteen minutes to go, and Réne Rast posted the first real improvement that we’d seen in some time, clocking 3:36.605 for the #26 G-Drive Oreca to ease out a margin of half a second over the second-placed Baxi DC Racing Alpine. At the other end of the scale, the #22 So24! Finally emerged from the pitlane for only the second time since the session began. Jono Coleman promptly set a 3:61.241 to tag on at the end of the P2 field.
There were few other improvements before the chequered flag came out at midnight, although Merhi eased in a few extra tenths to post a 3:38.037 five minutes from the end. There was a flourish in the dying moments, with Vanthoor in the #49 and Derani in the #31 both posting better times as others were already heading for the pitman.
Réne declared that the evening was “ideal”, and perhaps hoped for rain tomorrow, but felt there was plenty more to come from the car, if it was needed. He may not be the only one performing an impromptu rain dance tonight ….
Ford and Ferrari utterly dominated Wednesday night qualifying in GTE Pro, going several seconds faster than the class best from Test Day and locking out the top seven positions on the timing screens. The fastest lap overall came from the Blue Oval, a 3:51.185 right at the end of the session from Dirk Muller in the #68 GT and Fords wound up first, second, fourth and fifth-quickest in the category in this two-hour session.
As with the other classes, pretty much the entire GTE Pro field made its way out of pitlane at the start of running, with continuing uncertainty over the weather putting dry laps at a premium. Air and track temps had both dropped by around five degrees since the evening free-practice session.
The pace was immediately quicker than before: a 3:52.553 from Sam Bird in the #71 Ferrari, with Harry Tincknell in the #67 Ford three tenths behind. Richie Stanaway was initially third-quickest, but a good deal slower, at 3:55.380 in the #97 Aston Martin.
Olivier Pla in the #66 Ford then turned the wick up further, clocking a 3:52.038 that was almost instantly responded to by Gimmi Bruni in the #51 Ferrari with a 3:52.090, just five hundredths slower. The bar was then lowered again by Tincknell in the #67, lopping nearly half a second off the mark with a 3:51.590. Quickest non-Ford or Ferrari runner after 15 minutes was Fred Makowiecki in the #92 Porsche, 3.7 seconds off the ultimate pace in fifth.
Ferrari had more in the bag however, a 3:51.568 from Bruni was enough to put the #51 back on top after 25 minutes of running. Around the 30-minute mark, Fisichella in the Risi Ferrari had a dramatic spin at the Porsche Curves, ending up in the gravel but not hitting the barrier. An initial yellow then became a red flag to allow for the 488 to be extracted.
Green running resumed with an hour and a quarter on the clock, with air and track temp having remained steady at around 15 and 19 degrees respectively since the start of the session. Ricky Taylor in the #63 Corvette then had a moment through Mulsanne that ended with a small bump into the tyre barrier. Further incidents for LMP2 runners resulted in local yellows and slow zones around the track that prevented lap times falling further as the session entered its final half-hour.
With 20 minutes to go, the yellows had been lifted and the track was once again clear enough to allow improvements: Ryan Briscoe in the #69 Ford took advantage to set a new benchmark of 3:51.497, while Makowiecki made the #92 Porsche the first car not a Ford or Ferrari to dip below the 3:55 mark and eighth-fastest overall. The #95 Aston was next up, ahead of the other works Porsche, while the class was propped up by the Corvettes, which seem to have been keeping their powder very dry thus far. Right at the chequered flag, Muller set his 3:51.1 lap to clinch provisional pole overnight.
Rob Bell posted what could become the GTE Am pole time for the Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia. The loaned McLaren works driver looked back at home in the distinctively liveried chrome Ferrari, setting fastest lap in an untroubled Free Practice session before his team mates Mok Weng Sun and Keita Sawa got themselves dialled into the Sarthe circuit for qualifying.
The #61 car’s times were among the slower laps until Bell climbed aboard around the half-way point of the two hour session. Bell was soon setting sector times competitive with some of the GTE Pro field, but it took a few laps to string all three of these together to grab the ‘pole’ time of 3:56.827. This would remain unassailable despite the efforts of Pedro Lamy’s Aston Martin later in the hour.
The #98 Aston Martin had been cause for concern for most of the day’s proceedings, not exactly setting the circuit alight with its times until the ex Formula One driver reminded everyone what the Vantage was capable of and that last year’s pace here had not been lost.
A 3:57.198 would be over three tenths shy of Bell’s time, but three tenths quicker than the #55 AF Corse Ferrari, the predominantly British Racing Green #55 car was the first of the brace of AF Corse entries sitting third and fourth, a Ferrari 1-2-3 lockout looking quite possible until the Aston interrupted. Matt Griffin’s stirling efforts early on in proceedings had actually held the top slot for the #55 458 Italia at 3:57.935, under pressure from the #83 sister car being pedalled hard by Emmanuel Collard; 3:58.177 the French veteran’s best.
Fifth fastest session time went to Larbre Competition’s Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, a steady session giving Pierre Ragues enough opportunity to post a string of consistent times, the best of which being 3:58.018.
The session was largely incident free for the class, but Liam Griffin’s excursion deep into the gravel on a hot lap brought the #99 Aston Martin’s evening to a close near the end of the two hours. The car was assisted out of the gravel on the exit of the Porsche Curves, unable to lift itself off the bottom of the times.