Alonso, Nakajima and Buemi on pole in Le Mans for Toyota
Toyota with a front-row lockout, following three exciting qualifying sessions at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
After repeatedly relaying the gauntlet in all three sessions, the #8 Toyota took pole position thanks to a fantastic lap from Kazuki Nakajima. Lining up next to them on the grid will be the sister car, the #7 of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez, with the #1 Rebellion crew finishing up the top three.
The #48 IDEC Sport took pole in LMP2, their combine times placing the crew of Paul Lafargue, Memo Rojas and Paul-Loup Chatin ahead of the #31 Dragonspeed and #26 G-Drive Racing entry. The run of success for the Oreca entries continued, with the highest qualified Ligier being the Panis-Barthes Competition car in fifth. The highest qualified Dallara was the #47 Cetillar Villorba Corse team who ended up outside of the top ten.
Following their performance in free practice, Porsche again appeared to be unstoppable in the GTE classes. With the two retro liveried #91 and #92 factory cars taking the top spots in GTE Pro, and the #88 Dempsey-Proton Racing and #86 Gulf Racing cars quickest in GTE Am, they certainly are the marque to beat. While it remains to be seen if any last minute BoP changes will make any difference, Porsche's closest rivals in GTE Pro were the #66 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK car of Olivier Pla, Stefan Mucke and Billy Johnson, and the #51 AF Corse Ferrari in the hands of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra.
The first qualifying session took place on Wednesday night and allowed the teams to set their first bank of night-time laps. The two Japanese drivers at Toyota set the pace, with Kazuki Nakajima in the #7 setting the fastest time of 3:17.270, just edging out Kamui Kobayashi in the #8 who was only a tenth behind.
The closest of the privateer teams was the #17 SMP Racing. The BR1 finished two seconds behind the Toyotas, despite Stephane Sarrazin’s best efforts. He did manage to put the Russian entry ahead of the two Rebellions for the first time at Le Mans. More woes for CEFC TRSM as they opted to replace the engine in the #6 Ginetta and a starter motor issue for the #5 delayed both cars in starting the session. At several points during the session, the Toyotas (and the #4 ByKolles car) had laps deleted due to excessive fuel use.
In LMP2 a rapid lap from Paul-Loup Chatin in the #48 IDEC Sport Oreca 07 not only put the car on provisional pole but also beat the pole time set at last year’s 24 Hours. The 3:24.956 from the Frenchman put the car ahead of the #28 TDS Racing and both Ginetta LMP1 cars.
As has been the pattern in LMP2, the top five times in the class were set by Oreca entries, with the #22 United Autosports Ligier sitting in its current favourite place – sixth. There was still a Dallara in the top ten, thanks to a 3:28.556 set by the #29 Racing Team Nederland car.
Both GTE provisional poles ended up in the hands of a Porsche. Gianmaria Bruni in the #91 ‘Rothmans’ Porsche laid down a rapid 3:47.504 before losing the car at the Dunlop Curves. The car didn’t restart the session, but it didn’t need to, the time from the early run stood right through, the closest challenger being the sister ‘Pink Pig’ #92 Porsche almost two seconds adrift. In GTE Am, both Dempsey-Proton Porsches finished fastest, with the #88 of Matteo Cairoli, Khaled al Qubaisi and Giorgio Roda finishing ahead of the #77 in the hands of Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Julien Andlauer.
Incidents plagued what would ultimately be a shortened qualifying session, and times remained mostly unimproved.
The fastest lap of the session was a 3:18.021 from Fernando Alonso in the #8 Toyota, though the time was still almost a second slower than Nakajima’s time from the previous evening. Good news for the #6 CEFC TRSM however as Alex Brundle managed to improve the car’s time to a 3:24.343.
The session had two red flag periods, the latter resulting in the session not being restarted. Early on, Nico Lapierre in the #36 Signatech Alpine span into the gravel at the Ford Chicane bringing out the red flag for clean-up. Plenty of other cars had incidents during the session, including Mike Conway in the #7 Toyota and Andy Priaulx in the #67 Ford who managed to end up backwards in the barriers at Tertre Rouge.
The session was finally called to a halt following a heavy incident for Giorgio Sernagiotto in the #47 Cetillar Villorba Corse Dallara P217. The incident appeared to happen heading into the first chicane. However, Sernagiotto walked away from the car and is reported to be okay.
Keen to solidify their place at the top, Toyota quickly shattered the benchmark in quali 3. Kazuki Nakajima in the #8 Toyota crossed the line in 3:15.277, two seconds faster than his Q1 time, and two seconds ahead of the sister car.
With an hour and twenty to go, rain began to fall over La Sarthe causing most of the competitors to retreat to the pitlane. The drizzle was short-lived, but slow-zones remained to hamper drivers attempting to better their laptimes. As the two Toyotas returned to the track for hot laps, the rain returned effectively setting the grid.
We may not have hit 2017's pole time – a staggering 3:14.791 from Kamui Kobayashi’s #7 Toyota, but the performances in this year’s qualifying sessions have been superb and it all points to a rather exciting 24 hours to come.
This article was originally published on Overtake Motorsport.
Shared with permission from the author.
Cover Image: Toyota Gazoo Racing