The first session of free practice kicked off at four o’clock beneath bright sunshine and clear skies. Track temperatures were high, but with the surface still green and the public road sections yet to be cleared of the detritus of daily grime, it was going to be some while before we saw any truly representative times.
Heading the queue, and first out when the lights turned green, was the #34 Tockwith Ligier, followed immediately by the first of the Toyotas, allowing Sarrazin to set the first flying lap with a modest 3:39.332, bettered swiftly by Lapierre next time around with a 3:24.767 and then Buemi with 3:22.049. As a reminder, the best on the last weekend’s official test was a 3:18.132.
There were early troubles for the #47, Belicchi circulating slowly after just one lap and returning to the garage, to remain there for an hour or so. The #67 Ford GT was another to return also to the pitlane, with Andy Priaulx hauled back into the garage and away from sight.
Twenty minutes gone and LMP1 was running to form, with Lapierre’s 3:22.049 (#8) two seconds to the good of Buemi’s 3:24.731 (#9) and the first of the Porsche 919s third, Neel Jani clocking 3:25.268 for the #1.
As expected, LMP2 was quickly dominated by a string of Orecas, the first five slots falling to the 07-Gibsons; the #31 quickest with a time of 3:35.845 from Julien Canal aboard the Vaillante Rebellion.
Having languished mid-field for the first 25 minutes, the #4 Bykolles Racing ENSO CLM P1/1 found pace enough to move through to the tail of the P1 times, Dominik Kraihamer posting a 3:32.744, and then following through with a 3:28.553, just a second shy of the #2 Porsche.
Julien Canal’s time held sway in P2 for the opening half-hour, until Ho-Pin Tung swept through for Jackie Chan Racing with a new class best of 3:34.308 for the #38 Oreca 07-Gibson. Pierre Thiriet then snuck into second for G-Drive Racing, posting 3:35.779 in the #26. For reference, last Sunday’s P2 best was a 3:28.146 … so much better was expected.
Out at the sharp end, the #8 and #9 Toyotas were nibbling closer to the session’s best, with Jose Maria Lopez now in the #9 but yet to match Lapierre’s 3:22.049. Nick Tandy, reputedly keen to try his hand at Nascar, was showing improving pace for the #1 Porsche 919, setting a revised best of 3:25.268 to move third fastest.
Oreca’s dominance in P2 continued, with the chassis taking the top nine positions after 45 minutes. Within that group, however, it was chop and change throughout, Alex Brundle the next to move to the top of the pile, posting a 3:33.611 to give Jackie Chan’s outfit a one-two with forty minutes gone.
In P1, Toyota wasn’t having everything its own way, and Nick Tandy continued to find a few extra tenths for Porsche, posting a 3:23.846 ten minutes before the hour to split the leading Toyotas.
As we closed out the first hour, Toyota’s #9 headed the timing screens from the #1 Porsche and then the #8 Toyota. Stéphane Sarrazin laid claim to fourth for Toyota’s #7 ahead of Brendon Hartley, the Kiwi taking over the #2 Porsche from Earl Bamber. The singleton Bykolles closed off LMP1 with Kraihamer’s 3:28.553.
In LMP2, Nelson Piquet Jnr had stepped into the #13 Vaillante Rebellion and set an improved best for the team’s Oreca-07 of 3:32.408 to top the class from Brundle and Tung. Bruno Senna had the second Vaillante Rebellion (#31) running fourth fastest from Richard Bradley in the first of the Graff Racing entries; the #40 a tenth quicker than Roman Rusinov in the second G-Drive Oreca, the #26.
The best of the Dallaras was the #47, back on track after early issues and running 10th in LMP2, 16th overall on a 3:36.085. The best of the Alpines, the #36, stood 11th, just ahead of the test day’s pace-setting #35 in 12th. The first of the Ligiers, the #32 United Autosports JSP217-Gibson stood 20th overall.
Early into the second hour, Anthony Davidson showed his hand with a 3:22.681 to move the #8 Toyota through to second, ahead of Sarrazin, who had spent most of the opening hour in the #7 and had now posted a 3:22.877 to claim third for Toyota. Lopez, still quickest in the #9, had conspicuously been setting purple sectors on a regular basis – for the first two segments of the circuit, but then being noticeably less enthusiastic through the third.
Just after the quarter hour, the safety car was deployed for what was seen as a “test”, although legitimately, the opportunity was taken to make repairs to the tyre barriers in Karting, where the #50 Larbre Corvette had spun into the barriers. While the circuit was on a go-slow, all but a quarter of the 60 participants returned to the pitlane. The safety car was withdrawn at half-past, but there were localised yellows through the Porsche Curves while work was completed on the barriers, but the session was back to full speed by 17:34.
After ninety minutes, we finally saw times from the Dragonspeed LMP2 cars; Ben Hanley posting a 3:39.031 in the Ten Star #21 to move into 23rd overall. Meanwhile the sister car, the G-Drive by Dragonspeed #22, had yet to set a flying lap, although the team insisted there was ‘nothing wrong’ and they were merely sending the car out on repeated installation laps.
Rubens Barrichello was quickly down to business in the #29 Racing Team Nederland, posting a 3:39.386 to have the yellow Dallara nearer the middle of the P2 field – something of an achievement given reports that the chassis had been something of a handful in practice last weekend.
Having watched the lead times hover around the 3:22.5 mark, with the top three separated by little over a second, Brendon Hartley upped the game for Porsche and narrowed the gap from almost three seconds, to just six-tenths, posting a 3:33.728 with 20 laps completed for the #2 Porsche 919. He subsequently nibbled away at the heels of the #8, closing by tenths and hundredths, but never quite finding the full half-second or more he’d need to better the Toyota’s mid-session 3:22.681.
In LMP2, we finally saw a respectable time from the #22 G-Drive by DragonSpeed Oreca, with Ryo Hirakawa posting a 3:36.390 to move 20th overall, 14th in LMP2. Better was to come …
The Ligiers continued to struggle to match the pace of the Orecas, although Karun Chandhok was notably exuberant in his efforts to wring a few extra tenths out of the Tockwith #34, kerb-hopping through the Ford Chicanes on his way to a 3:37.913; 27th overall and 21st in P2.
Heading up towards two-and-a-half hours of the first session, and less than a second covered the entire Hybrid top five. Nakajima had been consolidating his hold on second spot, posting a 3:22.607, but these times were still several seconds short of expectations. Predictions for pole this year hover around the 3:17 mark, so 3:22s still left plenty of scope for improvement. Tandy was keeping Porsche a close second, his best for the #1 just 13/1000ths shy of the #9 Toyota’s best … although spotters reported a small amount of smoke evident from the left rear of the TS050 as Lapierre headed into the Dunlop Chicane.
Conway improved the #7 Toyota to third, as Tandy’s second-placed #1 Porsche went purple in Sector 2 before pitting. He stayed in the car, but Earl Bamber had by then taken over the #2, and was quickly up to speed, hustling the Porsche to the top of the P1 list for the first time, posting a 3:21.687 to give the Stuttgart factory the first sub-22 lap. It was interesting to note, however, that despite each car having covered roughly 40 laps, the third-quickest time with three hours gone was a 3:33.049 … coincidentally, exactly the same as the best set just five minutes into the session by Nicolas Lapierre. Porsche may have started to circulate with more panache, but there was a feeling that Toyota had significantly more yet to offer.
Meanwhile, in LMP2, it remained “anyone’s game”, provided they were belted into an Oreca cockpit. Alex Lynn displayed some virtuosity, improving to second in the #26 G-Drive (TDS) to displace the two Jackie Chan DC Orecas while Victor Shaitar’s SMP Racing Dallara was the best-placed non-Oreca, seventh in class.
So, with three hours completed, we had Porsche, Toyota, Toyota, Porsche, Toyota and Bykolles standing one through six in LMP1, the first five separated by just nine-tenths. The Bykolles ENSO had posted a 3:27.828 to be comfortably clear of the fastest P2 car, but six seconds off the ultimate pace.
Having been late to get going, the #21 DragonSpeed 10 Star Oreca had muscled through to second in LMP2, Hanley setting a 3:32.491 (at around half-six) to split the #13 Rebellion and the first of the Jackie Chan Orecas; Ho-Pin Tung in the #38, third on 3:33.042. Fourth stood the #26 G-Drive Oreca, with the #37 Jackie Chan DC Oreca fifth and the #25 CEFC Manor TRS Racing Oreca-07 sixth.
Just after seven we had a brief issue for the #36 Signatech Alpine, with Gustavo Menezes having to hold the door closed by hand before reporting back to the pits. Shortly afterwards we had the first significant change in P2 for some while, with Alex Lynn posting a new fastest time for the #26 G-Drive Oreca, 3:30.363, to move ahead of Piquet Jr and Bruno Senna’s Vaillante Rebellions and top out the class. Fourth quickest, the #38 JCDC Oreca, made a slow return to the pits with Ho Ping Tung at the wheel.
Finally, after more than three hours of fairly unexciting running, the session finally came to life with twenty minutes or so remaining. Kobayashi started to push hard in the #7 Toyota, purple sectors and setting a new best of 3:30.966 – seven tenths quicker than anything we’d previously seen – before clocking a 3:21 next time around, only to over-cook it going for an even quicker third lap; catching the gravel with the left-rear on the exit to the Ford Chicane and ending up on a gentle roll across the track, no damage done.
Then, with five minutes to go, Neel Jani responded for Porsche, the Swiss squeezing 3:20.362 out of the #1 Porsche 919 to find an impressive six-tenths over Kobayashi, defying the predictions and giving Porsche pride of place as the chequered flag fell – largely thanks to the Villorba Corsa Dallara pitching into the gravel at Mulsanne Corner, causing a Slow Zone restriction that lasted until the end of the session.
The top five in the two LMP classes as we rounded off this first practice session were …
#1 Porsche 919 Hybrid, 3:20.362
#7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, 3:20.966
#2 Porsche 919 Hybrid, 3:21.687
#8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, 3:21.775
#9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, 3:21.975
#26 G-Drive Racing (TDS) Oreca; 3:30.363
#13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca; 3:31.666
#31 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca; 3:31.749
#38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca; 3:32.025
#37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca; 3:32.286
Not exactly what we’d expected from LMP1, but LMP2 largely fulfilling expectations. In an hour’s time we’ll begin the more serious process of First Qualifying … and perhaps discover who’s not been showing their true hand.
Sam Bird in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari was the fastest GTE Pro runner in the Wednesday evening’s four-hour free practice session, setting a time of 3:54.832. In GTE Am, the quickest runner was the #98 Aston Martin, with a time of 3:56.082 courtesy of its long-time lead driver Pedro Lamy.
During the session, it was also confirmed that Lucas di Grassi would miss the race, his place in the #51 Ferrari being taken by marque regular Michele Rugolo.
Once the pits opened at 4pm, the first collective job for the field was to rubber the track in and clear the dust and debris from the public roads sections of the track. Within the first hour, the benchmark pace dropped fairly steadily from 4:00 to 3:58 to 3:57 (2016’s pole time by the #68 Ford GT was a 3:51).
Shortly after 5pm, Aston Martin’s Marco Sorensen had set the session’s fastest time to that point, a 3:56.763. That was around seven tenths up on Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 Ferrari, while Daniel Serra in the other Pro Aston Martin was third-fastest on a 3:57.968, ahead of the two works Porsches and the #69 Ford.
Fernando Rees (Larbre Corvette) was the early pacesetter in GTE Am, taking the #50 car around in 3:58.284. The Brazilian was at that point ahead of the #55 Spirit Of Race Ferrari and #98 Aston Martin.
The three-vehicle safety-car procedure was enacted about an hour and 15 minutes into the session after the Larbre car (now with Christian Philippon at the wheel) had an off on the way out of the Porsche Curves. A rear impact damaged the tyre stacks, but Philippon managed to get going under his own steam afterwards and limped the car back to the pits.
After repairs to the tyres, the safety cars returned to their positions at around 5:30pm, with 90 minutes of the session run. By the half-way point, Sorensen’s benchmark still stood, but Scott Dixon had gone second-fastest in the #69 Ford and Fred Makowiecki had put the #91 Porsche third.
Around 10 minutes into the third hour, Jan Magnussen went fastest in the #63 Corvette (a 3:56.004), while Alvaro Parente had by then unseated the Larbre Corvette from P1 by setting a 3:57.797 in the #60 Clearwater Ferrari. With 90 minutes to go, Magnussen was still top of the times, but Toni Vilander had put the Risi Ferrari second-quickest, just seven thousandths behind.
Just before the hour-to-go mark, the #95 Aston, with Richie Stanaway at the wheel, suffered a puncture but made it back to the pits for a tyre and driver change. A similar fate befell the #60 Ferrari, which Hiroki Katoh was also able to bring back to the pits relatively unscathed.
The top three in GTE Pro with an hour to run was still the #63 Corvette, #82 Ferrari and #69 Ford, while in Am no-one had topped Parente’s earlier benchmark in the Clearwater Ferrari, with the damaged Larbre Corvette and then the #98 Aston Martin second and third (Pedro Lamy having set the time in the latter car).
The Larbre car was repaired with about three-quarters of an hour remaining in the session, allowing Rees to take it out for a quick shakedown before handing back over to co-drivers Philippon and Romain Brandela. Around the same time, Darren Turner put the #97 Aston third-fastest in GTE Pro, unseating the #69 Ford from its long-held position, before going quicker again to set the fastest time of the session to that point – a 3:55.299.
Lamy then mirrored Turner by topping GTE Am (and momentarily fourth-fastest overall in GTE) in the #98 Vantage with a 3:56.079. Aston’s time at the top of both classes didn’t last long, however, as Bird put the #71 Ferrari fastest with less than 30 minutes to go. Back in Am, Dries Vanthoor hauled the JMW Ferrari up to second in the class with a 3:56.082.
There was then an incident for Stephane Lemeret in the #88 Proton Porsche, who scuffed the barrier but kept going to return to the pits for repairs. Also in the final hour, Calado got the #51 Ferrari up to third fastest and the #95 Aston also went faster than the Magnussen Corvette, which now sat fifth in class.
The DH Racing Ferrari also pipped the JMW machine down to third-fastest in the class towards the end of the session.
There was a late spin for the #67 Ford in the hands of Andy Priaulx, but no last-minute improvements, leaving the #71 Ferrari and #98 Aston topping the two GT classes ahead of Wednesday night’s qualifying. An off for the third-fastest #60 Ferrari at Mulsanne saw that sector declared a slow zone until the end of the session.