After a run-up to the big day that has included some of the wettest downpours we’ve seen at Le Mans for several years, the week’s first track session started at 4:00 pm under clear blue skies, and with very favourable ambient conditions.
A quick reminder that we have a fairly even split this year between LMP machines and GTs. Ten LMP1s and 20 LMP2s vie with 17 GT Pros and 13 GT Ams. Also worth recalling that last year’s pole times were as follows:
- LMP1 pole in 2017: 3:14.791
- LMP2 pole in 2017: 3:25.54
- LM GTE Pro pole in 2017: 3:50.837
- LM GTE Am pole in 2017: 3:52.843
These were set by Toyota #7, G-Drive #26, Aston Martin Racing #97 and Larbre Compétition #50 respectively.
At the head of the field, Toyota Gazoo Racing unsurprisingly ran fastest in the LMP1 class. The #7 TS050 HYBRID set a 3:18.718, Kamui Kobayashi the man aboard, reeling the time off in the final 20 minutes of the session.
In the end, it was a 1-2 for the Japanese marque, after the #3 Rebellion R-13 held second for most of the running, before a flurry of fast times at the end. The session reached its crescendo at the death, with most of the LMP1 class running faster in the final few laps, the #8 Toyota rising to second.
Sébastien Buemi put the #8 into the top two for the team, setting a series of fast times in his final stint at the end of the session, his best a 3:19.275 on his final lap, to go half a second off Kobayashi.
Behind, after Buemi’s time, the best of the privateers was pushed to third, the #3 Rebellion Racing R-13’s best time a 3:19.426, just 0.708 off the ultimate pace. The lap came from Thomas Laurent, who put in multiple personal best times in the final 20 minutes, giving the Swiss team confidence that at this stage, the car can go toe-to-toe with the Toyotas.
The flurry of times at the end demoted Ben Hanley in the #10 DragonSpeed BR1 Gibson to fourth, but it was nevertheless a very productive session for the American outfit, which managed to complete 44 laps during the four hours, the best set by the Britain, a 3:20.322. It was a significant too, because Hanley’s time put DragonSpeed’s BR1 ahead of the two AER-powered SMP examples.
The best of the SMP BR1s could only manage fifth. However, Jenson Button did find some pace behind the wheel of the #11, setting a late 3:21.304 in the final 10 minutes, after being asked to push late on by the team.
Further down the order, the two TRSM Ginettas had a tough start to its the week, though Mike Simpson did set a 3:25.203, to put the #5 G60-LT-P1 ahead of the LMP2 runners, and faster than the team’s best Test Day time. Unfortunately, though, the team lost a lot of valuable time, its cars managing just 22 laps combined due to electrical gremlins preventing them from completing any lengthy runs.
Jean-Eric Vergne topped the LMP2 field as the #26 G-Drive Oreca set a time of 3:26.529 with around 20 minutes of the session still to run, having taken over the fastest time from the IDEC Sport Oreca. Paul-Loup Chatin had set a time of 3:27.054 for the #48 quite early on in the session, and his time had stood for more than three hours before Vergne took over at the top.
It was an ORECA-dominated session, with the TDS Racing #28 setting the third-fastest time of 3:27.817. This was followed by Dragonspeed #31 and the Graff-SO24 #39, making it a top-five sweep for the marque.
The best of the Ligiers was the #22 United Autosports, posting a best of 3:28.284 in the hands of Paul di Resta, while the sister car (with Juan Pablo Montoya hogging most of the early running, and seemingly enjoying himself!) was three-seconds slower and down in 14th in class.
The fastest Dallara was the Cetilar Villorba Corse car, #47, ninth in class with a quickest of 3:29.214.
In the tyre war, it was Dunlop that topped the session and took third. Michelin took second and fourth.
The field was relatively well behaved, with the only issue on track coming from the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing entry. This suffered damage mid-way through the session after going off at Indianapolis and damaging the front-left corner. As a consequence, the car only covered 24 laps and missed much of the session. This was made worse by the fact the car has three rookie drivers, and each will need to set their minimum number of required laps. While the car will be back for qualifying later, missing track time could be damaging for the team.
The Larbre Competition Ligier, #50, had a similar experience, running only 24 laps after ending up in one of the Mulsanne grave traps. All three drivers set times but will be keen to do more and better in qualifying.
While most cars completed 30-50+ laps, there were a couple more who had truncated sessions. Despite setting one of the quicker times, the Graff-SO24 #39 only completed 10 laps, while the. Signatech Alpine #36 ticked off just 24 laps in the four hour session.
Overall, 10 cars went under 3 minutes 30 seconds, but Vergne’s time is still over a second slower than last year’s class pole time (of 3:25.352 set by the #26 G-Drive).
GTE Pro & GTE Am
In GTE Pro the AF Corse Ferrari 488’s were sitting out the early laps and it was Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA that opened their Le Mans account with the early fast times, after the safety zone was cleared early in the session. Two of the Ford GTs held sway for most of the opening half hour, narrowly quicker than the first of the Corvettes, the #64. An opening best time from the #68 Ford GT of 3:52.918 was eventually bettered by Richard Lietz in the #91 Porsche GT 911 RSR, by just a couple of tenths, as the session neared 40 minutes. His team-mate, Earl Bamber, then proved the pace of the new 911 by clocking 3:52.656 in the #93.
Setting the pace in GTE Am was the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche 911 RSR, with Benjamin Baker posting a best of 3:53.834. With reports suggesting the track was remaining “very green”, Baker’s time was already looking likely to result in quicker times from the best of the GTE Am entrants this year.
Forty-five minutes gone, and all but four LMP cars had set times, with both the CEFC Ginettas yet to complete a timed lap, alongside the pair of Jackie Chan Racing Jota Orecas.
The first hour saw most teams completing around eight to ten laps apiece. It was noticeable that both Toyotas continued to set purple (fastest) sector times, almost turn-by-turn, but the quickest lap outright remained a relatively conservative 3:20.723 from the #7 – hinting at significantly quicker times yet to come from both the hybrids.
In GTE Pro, the two works Porsches reversed the balance an hour in, the #93 and #91 Porsche GT Team entries posting times in the mid 3:52’s to go 1-2 over the #68 and #66 Fords and begin to assert Porsche’s presence. Their edge over the Ford GTs was mere tenths, with the best of the rest being the #71 AF Corse F488, albeit just a second shy of fastest. Little had yet been seen of the two works Aston Martins, with neither car pushing for pace and merely completing laps, while the BMW M8s were also hiding their cards.
This being Free Practice, perhaps lap times were less significant. However, with rain expected for Thursday’s sessions the money was on pole being set later on Wednesday evening and Porsche seemed to be exploring the limits. The ‘plain’ liveried Porsches looked particularly committed through the Ford Curves complex, Nick Tandy getting loose at pit-in and having to skip across the gravel.
Fifteen minutes through into the second hour and we had a frightening well-held moment for Nick Tandy in the #93, heading through the Porsche Curves. The rear of the car kicked away from him, and Tandy had to take to the extensive area of new run-off, where he was able to regain control and make a neat return to the track via an access road. In any previous year, when the same corner was bordered by unforgiving concrete walls, such a tail-wagging moment might well have ended in disaster. Some drivers have already commented that the changes to the Porsche Curves have “taken the fear” out of negotiating this famous sequence of corners, but if escape routes and generous hectares of run-off have made for a safer section of track, and it saves lives (and expensive rebuilds), then it’s a justifiable exchange.
The #4 ByKolles Enso was reported to the stewards for unspecified “dangerous driving”, and the #44 Eurasia Motorsport Ligier was warned for exceeding the pitlane speed limit. The #33 Jackie Chan Ligier (Pierre Nicolet) was black & white flagged for “constant abuse of track limits”, but these slapped-wrist moments aside, and a handful of waved yellows, there was little else of note. The #67 Ford GT made a beach-head excursion at Mulsanne Corner (Harry Tincknell at the wheel) with 85 minutes completed, and the Briton required assistance from a Manitou tractor unit to regain the track, scattering gravel as he went.
The fabulously liveried ‘Pink Pig’ 911 RSR carrying #92 also got rather tail-happy on the brakes into the Dunlop chicane, but Laurens Vanthoor would soon (an hour and a half into the four-hour session) proceed to head the class with a 3:52.372, just 4/1000’s separating the Porsche pair.
With little else to show for ninety minutes of session time, it wasn’t long before the #97 Aston Martin had a similar incident to Tincknell’s at the same location, Jonny Adam at the helm. Aston Martin’s 2018 Le Mans experience had a difficult start two weekends ago, and matters seemed less than encouraging. Both cars were occupying the bottom end of the Pro category, somewhat off the emerging pace at the halfway point. BMW were also finding their feet with the new M8 GTE, though without any obvious drama.
Moments later the pace-setter in GTE Am, the Gulf-liveried #86 Porsche 911 RSR (Mike Wainwright) also had a gravelly moment with five minutes of the second hour remaining.
With two hours gone, GTE Pro appeared fairly clearly defined, with Porsches filling the top three fastest slots, ahead of the quartet of Ford GTs, the fourth Porsche (#94) eighth, a pair of AF Corse Ferraris and then a mixed bag of BMWs, Corvettes and Astons through to the tail-ending #97 Vantage.
The standings in GTE Pro had been headed throughout the opening period by the #86 Gulf Racing 911, never bettered throughout the two hours. Once again, Porsches were setting the pace, with Dempsey Proton and Team Project 1 second and third, and the best non-Porsche being the #90 Aston Martin Vantage fourth quickest.
Ten minutes beyond the start of the third hour and the #93 Porsche (Patrick Pilet) clipped the side of the tyre wall on the exit of the first Mulsanne Chicane, and was able to continue unabated, but left behind a scattering of carbon fibre and a yellow flag. Pilet took the car straight back to the pitlane for repairs.
Simultaneously, elsewhere on the track, the neatly ordered GTE Pro field was being disrupted by a quick lap from Daniel Serra in the #51 AF Corse 488, who posted a new Ferrari best with a lap of 3:52.803 to split the quicker of the Ford GTs. Dumas in the #94 Porsche, and Molina in the #71 AF Corse F488 were also setting improvements. Serra was clearly pushing hard, and his trip into the gravel at the Porsche Curves was synonymous with evidence of uncharacteristic challenges seemingly affecting AF Corse. The #51 Ferrari was the best of the three red cars and had been posting faster laps to get into the top five, but the session had not really featured the Italians.
The top seven GTE laps overall were covered by less than a second, while the quicker times in GTE-Am had placed the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche eighth overall an hour into the session, Ben Barker’s 3:53.834 had been only two-tenths shy at that very early stage of the week. Indeed, the English driver had described to DSC earlier today how the ‘Am’ car was close to the ‘Pro’ car in terms of driveability, its only discernible difference being the air restriction handed out to the class.
Not long after Petrov squeezed the #11 SMP BR1 in between the two Toyotas to set second-fastest LMP1 lap, all-time pace setter in GTE Pro, the Gulf-coloured #86 Porsche, was being buried into the gravel at Dunlop by Mike Wainwright. An extensive slow-zone was introduced until Wainwright could regain the track, weaving aggressively to loosen the car’s substantial uptake of gravel.
The session had just notched through into the start of the final hour when the next significant change in GTE took place, with Sam Bird clocking a 3:51.521 in the #71 AF Corse 488 to move third-fastest in the class, just ahead of the first of the Ford GTs. The track was starting to rubber in nicely by now, and Olivier Pla climbed into the #66 Ford GT to be quick with a riposte, improving to third in GTE-PRO in typical style and deposing the #71 AF Corse Ferrari that had now shown competitive pace.
It’s worth noting that the best time to that point from Vanthoor in the #92 Porsche, a 3:50.859, had edged to within a tenth of last year’s GTE Pro pole. Similarly, when Matteo Cairoli pushed the #88 Dempsey-Proton Racing 911 RSR through the quickest in GTE Am, with a new fastest lap of 3:52.903, a similar gap remained to GTE Am. Already, it was looking likely that any records set 12 months ago were going to be well and truly broken. Cairoli’s time pushed the Am Porsche well into the GTE Pro timings, while 3:53.976 was good enough to put Clearwater Racing’s Ferrari third in GTE Am to split the Porsches.
With times continuing to improve, it was still Porsche’s session through and through; the #92 pink Porsche fastest, just 1/100th quicker than the #91 classic 1980’s blue-and-white liveried 911 RSR. With times trading between the Porsches, it was Patrick Pilet’s turn to take the #93 car quickest. His 3:50.121 was, significantly, nearly a second better than its team mates’, giving Stuttgart a 1-2-3 and looking strong.
Times are not technically an important factor in free-practice, but this was still a four-hour window during which Porsche worked hard towards their limits and dominated throughout. Ford tried to break up the party, and showed consistent pace, but were effectively two seconds off Porsche’s best. Patrick Pilet’s fastest session time was comfortably quicker than last year’s GTE Pro pole, and demonstrated notice of intent when the qualifying for real starts later this evening.
For Ferrari, the session seemed to start late, although they went on to post respectable times and set the AF Corse 488s fifth and seventh. Despite having a power break ahead of this week’s action, the Corvette performance seemed unspectacular, but it was still a better showing than either BMW or Aston Martin, with the former never really appearing to push hard (and maybe holding something in reserve) while the Aston’s seemed to struggle with issues and performance.
In GTE Am, the results suggest a category that’s heavily weighted in Porsche’s favour. The #88 Dempsey-Proton entry, tenth overall in the GT classes and splitting the Pro listing, was just over a second quicker than the Gulf Racing Porsche, thanks to a quick 3:52.903 from Matteo Cairoli. Before this, the pale blue Porsche had been quickest in the category for the best part of three and a half hours. The Spirit of Race Ferrari ended up third after a late showing of pace.