The European guests crashed the part in qualifying for the 15th Petit Le Mans, the final round of the American Le Mans Series, and the final point scoring round of the abbreviated European Le Mans Series.
However the pole sitter came from neither series, instead Neel Jani gave Rebellion Racing the overall pole position, beating the three ALMS regulars in LMP1 to the top spot. ALMS championship leaders Muscle Milk Pickett Racing put up the strongest resistance to that most unlikely thing – a European invasion led by the Swiss in the form of Bart Hayden’s squad.
Lucas Luhr was the man behind the wheel of the Muscle Milk branded HPD, threatening after a mid-session pit call, to take the competition for pole all the way to the final minutes of the session. However, the German, sharing the car with regular teammate Klaus Graf and Romain Dumas, the Frenchman joining the team for the 10 hour, 1,000 mile race. Despite aborting a late tilt at pole Luhr completed ten laps – four more than Jani – immediately putting them on the back foot for the opening stint of the race, where the tyres from qualifying have to be used.
The Muscle Milk crew’s ALMS title rivals – Guy Smith and Chris Dyson in the #16 Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda – completed a lap more still on their way to third fastest, Irishman Steven Kane completing the team’s line-up.
Smith’s best lap was just over a second slower than Jani’s pole time (1:09.089), with Luhr 0.339 seconds off pole position.
Advantage in LMP2, where there are both ELMS and ALMS titles to decide, went to OAK Racing and Conquest Endurance respectively, the pair of Morgan badged chassis securing the front row of the grid for the class, separated by just two thousandths of a second. Only just faster than Martin Plowman Oliver Pla scored pole for OAK Racing to give them the upper hand on title rivals Thiriet by TDS Racing, who were only eleventh overall and sixth in class.
Marino Franchitti qualified the lone Level 5 Motorsports HPD third – he will share the car with team owner Scott Tucker and older brother Dario Franchitti, the multiple Indycar champion making his first Petit Le Mans start since the rained out 2009 event.
The top five in LMP2 were covered by less than half a second, Brendon Hartley fourth for Murphy Prototypes, Alex Brundle fifth for on his return to the Greaves Motorsport fold, the team’s Zytek-Nissan given the #1 plate for the weekend with Brundle sharing the entry with Tom Kimber-Smith and Alex Buncombe.
The top ten was rounded out by the Gunnar Jeannette driven Nissan DeltaWing, running – as it did at Le Mans – as an unclassified runner.
Extreme Speed Motorsports blocked out the front row of the GT classes, Guy Cosmo snatching pole position from Toni Vilander in the dying minutes of their session to install both of the Ferrari 458 Italia – newly bedecked in a chrome and blue livery – at the head of the class.
Vilander, joining the regulars Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek in the #01 car led the way for much of a session that seemed abnormally quiet for the ALMS’ strongest – numerically – class. Behind BMW and Corvette squads battled for places on the second row of the class, Jorg Muller beating newly crowned class champion Oliver Gavin to third spot.
In a familiar story for endurance racing this year the Porsches struggled for pace, despite each of the teams being joined by a third driver from the growing stable to Porsche specialists. The pair of Flying Lizard Motorsport cars were just seventh and ninth in class, Jorg Bergmiester delivering the best time of any of the Porsche men. He and Patrick Long are joined by Patrick Pilet for the race. Less than a week after winning the LMGTE Pro class at the Six Hours of Fuji Richard Lietz could only find the pace for eleventh in class, put in for qualifying by Paul Miller Racing.
Nicolas Armindo – another man who could easily be described as Porsche specialist – was the best of the two LMGTE Am cars, the class another to be transplanted from the ELMS. The IMSA Performance Matmut Porsche beating the AF Corse Ferrari.
Driving with Dion von Moltke and Cooper MacNeil – already crowned this year’s class champion – Leh Keen set the pace for Alex Job Racing among a strong GTC contingent.
However, despite the wealth of talent on show in the 40+ car field arguably the best fight for pole position was put on by the LMPC drivers.
Of the six teams in the class at least four held provisional pole at some point in the session; Ryan Dalziel and Colin Braun in the pair of CORE Autosport entries, Ryan Lewis for Dempsey Racing and Kyle Marcelli for Merchant Services Racing.
Lewis looked as though he had won the pole, going faster and faster with each lap before finally having to back off having caught up to the rear of another car. That left the way clear for Marcelli to storm forth with a lap of 1:14.099 to take the pole with Braun now second fastest. Marcelli said he planned another flying lap, but his engine cut out on the climb up the majestic Esses section of the Road Atlanta circuit, the car coasting to a halt between turns five and six on the 2.54 mile track.
The stranded Marcelli caused a red flag – ironically just before he succeeded in refiring the car – taking away the prospect of a flying finish to a fantastic qualifying session for the spec chassis class.