The week’s second session of official qualifying for the 24 Hours, the first of two scheduled for Thursday evening, started on the dot at 7 pm, with 52 of the 60 heading out when the pitlane exit lights flashed green.
The much predicted rain hadn’t yet materialised, although the forecast suggested there was a 50% chance that it would arrive before the end of the day. Dry it may have been, but it wasn’t warm, and the drivers were going to have to work hard to get decent temperature into their tyres.
The second qualifying session was cut short after a heavy accident for the #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse. Italian Giorgio Sernagiotto’s Dallara apparently sustained a front-left blow-out that pitched the car heavily into the tyre wall opposite the first Mulsanne chicane, strewing debris across the track and causing significant damage to the barriers.
The session was red flagged after 1 hour 22 minutes and did not restart. The two Toyota TS050s were on track for most of the eight-odd minutes, with Fernando Alonso starting the session in the #8 but unable to improve on the 3:17.270 from Kazuki Nakajima posted on Wednesday, although he still set the quickest P1 time of the day, in the low nineteens.
The #8 Toyota TS050 also failed to improve upon yesterday’s time, although did complete 14 laps a session that was regularly hampered by flags of all hues.
Very few cars made improvements, but among those that did, credit to both the CEFC TRSM Racing G50-LT-P1 Ginettas, with the #5 and the #6 both setting improved lap times and moving up the order, even if more bad luck would subsequently hit the team. At least they had closed in on the tail-end of the P1 class, with only the front row in P2 denying the #5 cohesion with its peers.
Prior to all that, the first lap times set by Leo Roussel in the #5 had been deleted due to a pit lane speeding infringement, a double blow for the team, since it had been Roussel who’d set the fastest times. The team’s best was reset to a 3:30.339, dropping them back down the field, although they would recover.
Alex Brundle made a slight improvement in the #6, but as if the weekend couldn’t get any harder for the team the #5 car had to return to the pits after damaging the front splitter after the car encountered debris left behind from one of the day’s previous races.
The #6 Ginetta would get back out to set a time of 3:24.343, putting it ahead of the LMP2 field and showing the first vital signs of pace and performance. The #5 also circulated well for much of the session, improving to 3:25.268 before Charlie Robertson ended up in the tyres at Indianapolis.
For the rest of the LMP1 field, the third-placed #17 SMP Racing BR1 only put in four laps and was in the garage on the jacks for much of the time. The sister #11 SMP only put in three laps in the session.
Equally the #3 Rebellion was stuck in the pits for most of the period, coming out just before the red flag to set a time. The #1 Rebellion R13 completed 12 laps but none of the drivers improved on the car’s time of 3:19.662.
There were a couple of early scares in the session for the LMP2 field. The biggest came for the #35 SMP Racing with Norman Nato behind the wheel. A right front puncture on the Dallara P217 pitched the car into a violent spin at the Porsche Curves.
Last year the car would almost certainly have ended up in the wall, likely sustaining significant damage or, considering the speed, far worse. This year, however, the new and extensive run-off means that drivers, even those totally out of control, have a more than sporting chance of emerging safely from the other side. Nato did well to scrub off most of the speed and regain the track, narrowly missing the sister LMP1 car.
The Frenchman was able to get the car back to the pits without further damage, and the Dallara returned to the action shortly afterwards.
Tracy Krohn was another who had to make it back to the pits, but through no fault of his own. The #44 Eurasia Motorsport Ligier shed a front right wheel on Krohn’s out-lap, suggesting a nut failure or a missing retainer. With limited steering, it was a challenging lap.
Nico Lapièrre was hustling through the Ford Chicane when the #36 Signatech Alpine clipped the first kerb quite heavily, but he pressed on, and then caught the kerb again in the middle element. It was enough to break something at the right rear, and the car speared across the final turn and spun across into the gravel on the exit, showering the track with stones.
Lapièrre had already passed the pit entry, so had to circulate the entire track to get back to the garage while marshals attempted to clear the gravel from the track with leaf blowers. One was tempted to think that old-fashioned brushes might have been more effective.
The big crash that ended the session for the #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse Dallara P217 means the team faces a monumental task to get the car ready for the race, but the good news is that Sernagiotto was seen to exit from the cockpit unaided, although he was taken to the medical centre for a routine check-up.
As in LMP1, there were not many cars improving their times with the #48 IDEC Sport ORECA retaining the top spot from the #28 TDS Racing and #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca third.
GTE Pro and GTE Am
Eight minutes into the session, and Sven Müller in the #94 Porsche was reported as having slewed the car side-on into the tyre-wall at Indianapolis, catching the rear-end on the Armco in the process. Of the four works Porsches, the #94 was the one that needed to make an improvement if it was to match the Wednesday pace of its stable-mates.
Six minutes later Andy Priaulx made a rare mistake in the #67 Ford GT as he paced through the Esses, tipped the dirt with the left-rear, and snapped back-to-front in the Ford GT to slam heavily into the barriers at Tertre Rouge. Catching the momentum from the tyres, but devoid of rear wing and a fair amount of bodywork, the Briton hardly missed a beat as he took to the escape road, rejoined the track, and started what would be a slow return to the pitlane. It was this Ford GT, in the hands of Harry Tincknell, which had a fairly incident-packed outing on Wednesday.
The consequence of both incidents was the first red-flag period in the run-up to the LM24, followed by the screen announcement at just after twenty-past the hour that “only few drops” of rain were falling. The barrier had been sufficiently damaged by the impact to demand repair. Priaulx returned to the pitlane early into the 27th minute, and the session itself resumed at 19:35, governed by a slow-zone from Mulsanne through to Arnage.
Those zones were cleared at 19:42, opening the circuit to the possibility of some quick lappery, but every sign remained that the track wasn’t going to play the game. Mike Conway wasn’t the only driver to find the run through Dunlop had a treacherous edge, spinning the #7 on his out-lap. Some minutes later Mike Wainwright would go one better, and actually beach the Gulf Racing 911 under the Dunlop Bridge.
The first car to make an improvement over its Wednesday best was the #6 Ginetta, Ollie Rowland finding a few seconds, but the two CEFC entries had the most to gain. They’d been 10 seconds off the class pace after Wednesday’s opening session.
Matching that achievement in GTE-Am was Pat Long in the Proton Competition Porsche, the American dialling in his experience of the circuit to clock a 3:54.720, nudging the 911 RSR into the class top-ten from nearer the bottom. He did more than nudge the #81 BMW through the Ford complex a few minutes later, however, hopping across the corner of the middle element and then chopping across the nose of Martin Tomczyk’s M8 GTE, forcing both cars into the pits for routine inspection next time around.
With dark clouds gathering in the distance, several teams and drivers were certainly pushing. Giancarlo Fisichella posted a 3:51.956 to edge the #54 Spirit of Race F488 into third in GTE Am, and Jeff Segal took the #84 JMW Ferrari up into sixth with a 3:53.439.
The session had just entered its second hour when the #5 Ginetta (Charlie Robertson) had an off through Indianapolis, and needed assistance to regain the track. Meanwhile, back in the pitlane, Andy Priaulx had the #67 Ford GT on four wheels again, and keen to rejoin the fray, just forty minutes after his fairly significant impact with the Tertre Rouge barriers. Proof of a very efficient turnaround by the Ford pit crew.
An off, prompted by a rear suspension failure on the #36 Signatech Alpine, resulted in a substantial gravel deposit on the exit of the Ford Chicane, right across the racing line. Marshals with leaf-blowers, and under the relative security of a slow zone, were employed to clear the track. This precluded any fast lapping from GTE until the full-green returned at 20:20.
Moments later though, at 20:23, the track returned full red after a major incident at the Forza Chicane for Giorgio Sernagiotto in the #47 Cetilar Dallara. After some debate, the stewards elected to end the session early, and then begin the evening’s second session at 21:30.
The much vaunted rain had largely held off, and with the final session brought forward by half an hour, the chance remains of some order changes before the end of the day, perhaps mainly in GTE Am.