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Le Mans: Qualifying 3, Toyota Pole Confirmed

LMP2 beats 2011 LMP1 pole time; GTE Pro completes sweep of new class qualifying records

After the excitement of Thursday’s first session, more of the same was certainly hoped-for when the evening’s final session got under-way at ten o’clock.

Right from the get-go, all three Toyotas were back in play, including such an impressive engine-change by the #8 crew that it had been widely assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that they’d not actually needed to go through with the entire process. Indeed they had, but with such swift efficiency that the car was back out with and running with Nakajima neatly dialled-in and posting a 3:17.128 just a few minutes into the session. That was good enough for second overall, a Toyota one-two, and opening up the possibility of a top-three lockout for the Japanese marque.

Sure enough, Nicolas Lapierre responded, deciding it was time the #9 TS050 to enjoy a slice of the action. His purple Sector 1 didn’t ultimately convert into the third he’d hoped for, but 3:18.067 was still an improvement for the third Toyota.

Ten minutes into the session and Matthias Beche took the #13 Vaillante Rebellion through to third in LMP2 with a revised best of 3:26.811, just before an incident for the GTE-Am Ferrari paused the session once again.

Keen to make good on his earlier promise, Lapierre was back out and pushing hard in the #9, perhaps a little too hard. Heading down towards the first Mulsanne Chicane and he over-cooked the entry, carrying straight on but with no apparent issue. It was merely an indication of how determined Toyota must be to deprive Porsche of that third slot on the grid.

As the light began to fade, Alex Lynn blasted across the line in 3:25.352 to break the original P2 lap record yet again for the #26. Not only was his time some 7 seconds ahead of the previous class record, and giving the TDS-run G-Drive #26 provisional pole for 2017, but this time would also have placed the Oreca on overall pole in 2011. Six years ago Ben Treluyer’s LMP1 pole lap was a 3:25.738 with Audi e-tron power! However, given the way the LMP2 times continued to tumble., and over 90 minutes of the session still remaining, pole position could not yet be taken for granted. “What a great night to be a racing driver – the fastest night in Le Mans history,” enthused Alex Lynn on Radio Le Mans: “We’ve got a tail wind down the Mulsanne, and a headwind through the Porsche curves, but put together with a resurfaced Bugatti Circuit and we’ve got perfect conditions.”

LMP2 was certainly the class seeing the most improvements. The #37 JCDC car improved a place to sixth in the hands of Tristan Gommendy, while the #35 Signatech Alpine moved up three places to ninth. Then a huge lap from Matthieu Vaxiviere showed that last night’s pole effort was not a one-off, and rocketed the #28 TDS car from twelfth through to sixth, despite time spent in its garage.

The ARC Bratislava Ligier JSP217 suffered an alternator problem on Wednesday evening and had an unfortunate recurrence of the same problem tonight. The team announced that the car would not be out again in qualifying and they would be starting their focus on preparation for the race.

After all the earlier excitement a memory, the session appeared to have settled down to a steady rhythm as eleven o’clock approached. New names were appearing on the timing screens as drivers were installed for their night laps. However, not everyone was relaxing, and Ollie Webb took advantage of a clearer track just before the hour to post a 3:24.744 for the #4. This put the ByKolles entry back in touch with the LMP1 category and, non-hybrid status aside, the car continued to show solid improvement. Its next lap, a 3:24.170, reduced the time by a further half a second.

As qualifying for the 2017 race entered its final hour, Enzo Guibbert showed strongly in the #39 Graff Oreca. After its earlier excursion off track, the car had sat in its garage for the best part of an hour. He responded well to claim 9th in class with a 3:28.368. This meant the first thirteen positions in LMP2 were all taken by the Oreca 07 chassis, the nearest challenger to supremacy being the #27 SMP Racing Dallara in 20th overall, but eight-tenths behind the #22 G-Drive DragonSpeed.

Few are about to forget Kobayashi’s majestic 3:14.791, but since that impressive lap earlier in the evening Porsche had been notable for the team’s lack of prominent activity. That was suddenly changed but for the wrong reasons, as the #2 was seen crawling towards Indianapolis, Brendon Hartley aboard. The car was seen making slow progress, but even that eventually ended as the lights went out and the 919 Hybrid slowly coasted to a halt.

The #33 Eurasia Motorsport car that halted the earlier session (after Maris clouted the barriers on the Mulsanne) was reported to be expecting a new chassis in time for a full rebuild, fresh scrutineering checks and a Saturday afternoon start. On track, Nelson Panciatici was the only recent improvement in LMP2, moving the #35 Alpine up a place into ninth with half an hour remaining.

Porsche updated that Lotterer’s #1 919-Hybrid had sustained a slow puncture, which had dampened its efforts. More importantly though, the #2’s issues arose after Brendan Hartley received an engine temperature warning which prompted him to rest the car. Unfortunately, it then failed to re-start. Hartley was reportedly towed back to the pits; the suspicion being a battery issue.

Twenty minutes short of the flag and Filipe Albuquerque brought the United Autosports entry into focus, a 3:29.151 pipping the SMP Dallara for 13th in class and the provisional honour of fastest non-Oreca.

Bruno Senna’s persistence with set-up changes finally delivered results for the Vaillante Rebellion, the #31 making a significant leap to post third-quickest in LMP2; 3:26.736. This wasn’t to last though, as as Ho-Pin Tung restored honour for the #38 Jackie Chan Oreca by clocking a 3:25.911, making it three cars in the ‘25s.

Elsewhere, Nelson Panciatici continued the churn of P2 improvements; 3:27.517 being good for #35’s eighth place, as almost immediately afterwards, Alex Brundle tucked the #37 Jackie Chan car in behind.

Everything still seemed to be there to play for as the final minutes approached. A 3:27.782 from Mikail Aleshin proved that improvements were still possible, and nudged the #27 SMP Racing Dallara into the top 10, the first non-Oreca to achieve that elevated status. Gustavo Menezes then responded to post ninth for the #36 Signatech Alpine.

As the session drew to a close, there was one final flourish, as Nigel Moore found the gravel exiting the Porsche Curves, the #34 Tockwith Motorsport Ligier sliding sideways for the best part of fifity yards before burying itself in the trap.

The chequered flag fell at the end of an evening that had been both thrilling and, at times, somewhat pedestrian, but such is the way of Le Mans qualifying. The notable difference about this year’s Thursday sessions has been the magnitude of the achievements, not only in terms of records broken, but also by the number of cars and drivers breaking those records, and with such apparent ease. This could mean nothing however as the main event now beckons and the real drama starts to unfold.

As Kazuki Nakajima finished his night’s work on track in the #8 car, celebrations broke out in the #7 Toyota garage long before the last car had crossed the line, but there was simply no way that Kobayashi’s 2.3 second advantage was ever going to be challenged so late in the day.

The challenge now for Toyota is to put all memories of 2016 well behind them and convert this evening’s emphatic performance into an equally impressive result on Sunday. Putting aside Kobayashi’s blistering pole lap the Porsches were more or less on the pace, but somehow failed to draw too much attention. Rest assured, however, Stuttgart’s firm hold on the second row guarantees that Toyota won’t get this year’s 24 Hours all their own way.


GTE Classes

Aston Martin and Larbre Competition respectively topped GTE Pro and GTE Am qualifying for Le Mans 2017, with the fastest times for both being new qualifying lap records and being set in this third and final part of qualifying.

Early in Thursday night session, Corvette finally showed its hand when Tommy Milner went second in class in the #64, while P1 and the qualifying lap record in GTE Am changed hands again, with Townsend Bell getting the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari around in 3:53.312. A slow zone was then required for a few moments when Francesco Castellaci had an off at Dunlop in the #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari.

There was also an off for the Gulf Porsche with Ben Barker at the wheel – the car having already missed the majority of the earlier session due to a rear suspension issue.

Later in the session Antonio Garcia got the other Corvette up to fourth in GTE Pro with a 3:52.089, while Lamy kept the #98 Aston in the GTE Am game, leapfrogging to second in class and then topping the class with a 3:53.233. That put the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari into second, while a 3:53.641 from Marco Cioci had the #56 Spirit Of Race Ferrari third in class at this juncture.

The GTE Pro pole battle then came alive as Michael Christensen in the #92 Porsche and then Garcia went fastest in quick succession – the bar in this class now lowered to 3:51.484. Rees then banged in a 3:52.843 to top GTE Am in the Larbre Corvette art car – actually going faster than the slowest GTE Pro entrant at that juncture, the #67 Ford.

The Fords had filled the bottom slots in the class for the majority of the sessions until then, but with just over an hour of qualifying left, Ryan Briscoe clocked a 3.51.232 to move into provisional pole. There was no immediate challenge to that and the next time of note was Darren Turner’s 3:51.619 to put the #97 Aston third in the class.

That rapidly became fourth, however, when Richie Stanaway in the #95 completed the set of class qualifying records broken by doing a 3:51.038. The entire GTE Pro field was at this point still covered by just 1.5 seconds, while next to improve was Harry Tincknell, getting the #67 Ford off the bottom of the pile and into sixth in class.

Turner ensured Stanaway’s new record would only last a matter of moments, dropping the GTE Pro bar to 3:50.837 with under 20 minutes to go. Elsewhere, Cairoli kept the #77 Proton Porsche in the mix with a 3:53.381 to go fourth in Am – and make it four different manufacturers in the top four.

Stefan Mucke grabbed fifth in GTE Pro with 11 minutes to the flag (a 3:51.991), followed swiftly by Calado slotting the #51 Ferrari into second with a 3:51.028. His team-mate Bird was also rapid in the #71 488 in the dying minutes, popping in ahead of Mucke with a 3:51.086.

A yellow for a stranded LMP2 car in the Porsche Curves gravel put paid to any further improvements, leaving the top qualifiers in the two GTE classes as follows: