Wednesday's free practice was the chance for teams to rack up a few laps, get to know the track inside out and tweak their cars’ settings. Then, at 22:00 the pressure turned up a notch in the first 2-hour qualifying session with a best time booked by the #8 Toyota leading the charge. The two TS050 Hybrids fielded by the Japanese manufacturer have the front row locked (for now).
Qualifying at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is always unique and the first session on Wednesday was no exception. Competitors must prepare an endurance race while doing everything they in their power to improve their times.
Toyota is already the forerunner. Though British driver Ben Hanley was first to top the timesheet in 3:21:110 (#23 BR Enginerring BR1), he was quickly left in the dust by the two hybrid cars: 3:17:270 for Kazuki Nakajima (#8) and 3:17:377 for Kamui Kobayashi (#7). The two Japanese drivers took advantage of a clear track and a cool 15°C at 22:00.
Fernando Alonso took the wheel for his first night-time session at the 24 Hours circuit at 22:56. The Spanish driver got a taste of the magic of Le Mans, including the Mulsanne Straight and the Porsche Curves in limited lighting.
SMP Racing is the first "non-hybrid" team, with the #17 BR Engineering BR1 driven by Stéphane Sarrazin. Rebellion Racing follows with its two Rebellion R13s.
In LMP2, a Franco-French duel drew the attention of spectators watching the qualifying session. The TDS Racing team initially took the lead with IDEC Sport close behind, but then they switched positions. G-Drive Racing, DragonSpeed and Signatech Alpine round out the top 5. The lap times clocked in the class are similar to previous editions, however the 2017 pole time (3:25:352) has been beaten.
In LMGTE Pro like in LMGTE Am, Porsche dominated this first qualifying session, but not without some real concerns. Gianmaria Bruni (#91 Porsche 911 RSR) is fastest in LMGTE Pro, but just as the session began, he missed his braking at the Dunlop Chicane and went into the gravel trap, quickly removed by the track marshals and placed in a safety zone for the remainder of the session.
In LMGTE Am, Dempsey-Proton Racing takes the top two spots in the class (#88 911 RSR ahead of the #77 sister car).
The Porsche 911 RSRs did well but they also had their difficulties, particulary in braking zones, including several incidents (Matt Campbell and Romain Dumas).
Competitors in the LMGTE Pro class are quicker than ever. The top 13 are (already) faster than pole position in the class last year (clocked by Darren Turner with an Aston Martin Vantage GTE in 3:50:837).
The 60 competitors will have two more qualifying sessions today from 19:00 to 21:00 and from 22:00 to 00:00, in which the improve their times.
Will Nakajima hold on to pole position?
Standings at the end of Qualifying session 1:
#8 Toyota TS050-Hybrid – Toyota Gazoo Racing – 3:17.270
#7 Toyota TS050-Hybrid – Toyota Gazoo Racing – 3:17.377
#17 BR Engineering BR1-AER – SMP Racing – 3:19.483
#48 Oreca 07-Gibson – Idec Sport Racing – 3:24.956
#28 Oreca 07-Gibson – TDS Racing – 3:25.240
#26 Oreca 07-Gibson – G-Drive Racing – 3:26.447
#91 Porsche 911 RSR – Porsche GT Team – 3:47.504
#92 Porsche 911 RSR – Porsche GT Team – 3:49.097
#66 Ford GT – Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK – 3:49.181
#88 Porsche 911 RSR – Dempsey-Proton Racing – 3:50.728
#77 Porsche 911 RSR – Dempsey-Proton Racing – 3:51.930
#86 Porsche 911 RSR – Gulf Racing – 3:52.517
The fastest times in each class were all banked early in the session.