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The Challenges of Le Mans Qualifying

Toyota's Mike Conway and Sebastien Buemi consider the prospects for Thursday second qualifying

“If there’s one thing this race teaches you it’s that it doesn’t get any easier!” explained Mike Conway, anchorman for the #7 Toyota TS050 that topped the timing screens at the end of the Wednesday evening qualifying session. Thanks to a series of stoppages and yellow zone restrictions, drivers struggled to achieve sufficient rhythm and continuity.

Add in to the mix this year’s improvement in LMP2 performance and the perennial Le Mans issue of traffic, and there’s been a sizeable ‘to do’ list at the Toyota Gazoo Racing garages.

“Our results this year mean we’ve come here feeling very optimistic and certainly since the test we are as assured as we can be that we are heading in the right direction. After last year the team rallied quickly and we’ve come here with huge motivation. Our opposition though has gained a lot. Last night we felt the Porsches had got close to us and their sector times showed they’re there or thereabouts. Kamui was trying hard on Wednesday and, as a team, we’re in the best position to start tonight’s sessions, but we have so much to accomplish ahead of Saturday – and it’s all about Saturday.”

Team-mate and #8 Toyota pilot Sébastien Buemi agrees, “First we look at our speed, then we have to do the bigger piece of work on the set-up. Sure, we really want to be on pole, it’s great for the team and for Toyota, but it’s quite a small part of the picture. A 3:17 is perfectly possible for the P1’s this week, but we also have to use our time to prepare for the race.”

“Actually, I hate the qualifying sessions – you work so hard and can easily lose so much for the wrong reasons. All the P1’s lost a second last night in traffic and I’m really sure now we should be looking at separate qualifying sessions here at Le Mans. Last night I was waiting at the end of the pitlane trying to get out while there were cautions; you sit there with your tyres cooling off while other people are being recovered, a lot of which comes from speed differentials.”

“The LMP2 speed is good now, certainly in the corners they’re almost as quick as us with a good Pro driver aboard, so they’re not so easy to pass there. And the GT’s don’t like being passed on the straights because it compromises their lap … and when there have been incidents everyone’s put under pressure. Sure, it’s part of Le Mans, but we’re doing 270 kph in the Porsche Curves and they’re at about 190…!”

Conway continues that thread with a little more contrition; “LMP2 traffic in the night is a particular challenge. We’ve done 36-hour tests which are hard work, preparing you and getting you familiar with how the car performs, enabling you to know what to expect from the team in a given situation, and indeed what they need from you. But nothing prepares you for what actually happens in this race; nothing is as mentally draining. Second-guessing how a car will react to you is a constant challenge. If they hold station that’s great, but there’s two-way respect: they’re trying as hard and running their race too.”

Bring into play this week’s factor of temperatures – forecast into the mid-thirties Centigrade, particularly for Sunday afternoon, and the race preparation has to be viewed differently: “A lot depends on the temperature,”explains Conway. “If it goes above 32 degrees the whole scenario changes, particularly given the extended timescale. 80 minutes is the maximum we can do in the car anyway, but the last five hours of this race could be very tough.”
Buemi adds, “That’s a new regulation they’ve brought in. We can’t drive more than 80 minutes if the cockpit temperature gets above 32 degrees, and that can be problematic in itself – it’s a distraction to your concentration and rhythm and the more driver changes you have the more chance there is to lose time if things go wrong.”

“Then there’s the tyres,” adds Conway. “We’re not suffering too badly with tyre degradation, but we have three compounds to play with and it’s important we get that right and completely understand what we can expect at the different stages of the race. Heat affects the tyres more than anything else, but if the car’s a handful it obviously makes a driver’s life more difficult too.”

“Understanding how the options may suit the conditions is a more valuable use of these sessions,” concludes Buemi, but as Conway offers with a smile, “That said, Komui could still be going for it..!”

Tonight we shall find out, as the cars begin the final sessions of qualifying for this year’s 24 Hours.