The sole practice session for the 24 Hours of Le Mans was fairly simple running for the four hours it lasted. Most of the teams got through the session without incident, setting up and preparing the cars ahead of the first of three qualifying sessions later on this evening. With the much hotter temperatures this weekend, the test that occurred at the beginning of the month may be less of a guideline for the teams as they prepare for the most important endurance race in the world.
Porsche Steal Fastest Lap
In the closing stages of the practice session, Neel Jani put the Championship-defending Porsche fastest with a lap time over half a second faster than the quickest Toyota Gazoo Racing. Toyota had, like they did in the test a fortnight ago, been commanding the pace of the session. But it was clear from the beginning of the four hours that Porsche had made gains on the advantage Toyota presented.
Kamui Kobayashi did not head out on track until the last hour of the session, going out with the sole intention of completing a qualifying simulation. On his first lap, he shot to the top of the timing board with a 3:20.996, seven-tenths clear of any of the other LMP1 cars.
With a slow zone on the track in the last twenty minutes of the session, it did not look like anyone else was going to try another fast lap. But Jani set off in the #1 Porsche as soon as the track was back to being completely green and set an incredible time of 3:20.362, a comfortable 0.604 seconds faster than the ‘qualifying’ lap set by Kobayashi.
In trying to better Jani’s time, Kobayashi pushed too hard on the exit of Ford Chicane and ended up spinning the car around, ruining any lap gains he had made. Any further improvement was thawed when a second car went off at Mulsanne corner and brought out another slow zone. There could be more to come from the Toyota team but if there is it will have to be discovered during the first qualifying session this evening.
Nicolas Lapierre controlled the pace for most of the session, taking an initial fastest lap of a 3:22.049 that none of the other LMP1 cars seemed to be able to get close to. As the session went on and the track rubbered in the lap times did, however, start picking up. Each of the LMP1 cars set around 50 laps over the course of the four hours, with Porsche #2 setting the most laps, 56 laps. The #2 Porsche had lost track time from an engine change during the test and they were aiming to make up for that during this afternoon’s practice session.
#4 ByKolles Racing had a troubled session. The team set a lap time that was over six seconds off the pace of the LMP1-Hybrids, but over five seconds faster than the LMP2 cars, so a lap time respective to where it is expected to be within the field. However, an early fluid leak saw the team only complete 27 laps before the Enso CLM P1/01-Nismo was parked up in the garage for the final two hours, undergoing an engine change. The team believes that they can get the car out in time for the first qualifying session later today.
G-Drive Racing Best of LMP2
The Vaillante Rebellion #13 held the fastest lap of the LMP2 cars for the first half of the session. In the final hour of the session, Alex Lynn knocked the #13 off the top spot and took the #26 G-Drive Racing to the top of the class. The Brit’s 3:30.363 was enough to go 1.3 seconds faster than the pace-setting Rebellion. The second Rebellion was third fastest, giving the team a two-three when the chequered flag came out.
The Jackie Chan DC Racing duo had been dictating the pace in the middle of the session, but the Rebellion and the G-Drive were too fast for them to keep up. Ho-Pin Tung finished fourth in the #38, 1.662 seconds off Lynn’s class-topping time. The second Jackie Chan DC Racing car was fifth, three-tenths off the time set by Tung.
Just as occurred in the Le Mans test a fortnight ago, the ORECA-running teams ran more competitively that teams running any of the other three chassis. The top nine was locked out by ORECA 07-Gibson teams, with the best non-ORECA car finishing tenth, courtesy of Victor Shaytar in the #27 SMP Racing Dallara P217-Gibson. Even so, Shaytar’s time was over four seconds slower than the fastest lap in class.
The only Riley Mk30 was slowest in the hands of the Keating Motorsports team. Whereas the LMP2 class has been close due to all the teams running the same chassis, Le Mans may reveal that the ORECA 07 chassis was the best choice for the World Endurance Championship field.
In the last half hour of the session, the #47 Cetilar Villorba Corse brought out a slow zone at Mulsanne Corner by taking too much speed into the corner and ending up stuck in the gravel trap. The track marshals helped push the #47 out of the gravel and it limped back to the pits, where it ended the session.
Bird Unbeatable in LM GTE Pro
As seemed to be the case in taking fastest laps of the session, Sam Bird‘s fastest lap for the #71 AF Corse came in the latter stages of free practice. The fight had been between Aston Martin and Chevrolet throughout the four hours as they traded fastest laps with Aston Martin coming out just ahead. However, a late dash from Bird saw him place the Ferrari 488 GTE faster than the rest of the LM GTE Pro field by just under half a second.
The session looked to belong to Aston Martin as they controlled the pace throughout the four hours. Corvette Racing started the session quietly but soon brought a challenge to Aston Martin’s dominance at the top of the timing board. A 3:56.004 saw Jan Magnussen place the #63 fastest as the third hour came to a close. A rear-left puncture on the #95 in the hands of Richie Stanaway put a halt on any attempts they had of getting back to the top of the timing sheet but Darren Turner was determined to get the Aston Martins back at the top.
With just half an hour remaining of the session remaining, Bird made Turner’s hard work look like a lot of effort for nothing as he went just under half a second faster with a 3:54.832. When the #60 Clearwater Racing repeated the incident that the #47 had at Mulsanne Corner a second slow zone was brought out that was not removed before the session finished, meaning that no one had a clean lap to challenge the Ferrari.
James Calado pushed hard in the closing stages to try and match the pace of Bird but was unable to go any faster than 3:55.504. The time was quick enough to end the session third fastest in class.
This followed news that Lucas di Grassi would not be participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans following a broken fibula he suffered playing a charity football match. He has been deemed unfit to take part in the event after failing to get himself out of the car without assistance in the seven seconds required as part of the safety protocols of the WEC. Michele Rugolo will step into di Grassi’s seat, alongside Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 AF Corse.
Aston Martin Leads LM GTE Am
The factory-entered Aston Martin started and ended the session setting the pace. Mathias Lauda got out early and held the pace for most of the first hour until the #50 Larbre Competition took over at the top. Fernando Rees came out and set a 3:58.234 that no one else seemed to be able to beat.
However, the #50 had a moment through the Porsche Curves just into the second hour of the session and caused damage to the tyre barrier. This brought out the Safety Car for barrier repairs. As well as repairing the barrier, the Safety Car took to the track to complete a rehearsal of the Safety Car procedure so that all those, who have raced Le Mans before or not, could experience how a Safety Car period works.
After first-time Le Mans racer Christian Philippon touched the tyre barrier, it did not look like a lot of external damage to the #50 Larbre Corvette, however, the team either did extensive checks internally or found an issue in the car internally as the #50 was sat in the pits for just over an hour.
This delay in their running allowed the other LM GTE Am cars to push for the fastest lap of the session. It took most of the session for any of the LM GTE Am cars to be able to challenge the #50 Larbre Competition time, but first to demote them was the #60 Clearwater Racing team.
The Clearwater Ferrari was leading the session, even after suffering a left-rear puncture at the end of the third hour. Just after the final hour had started, Pedro Lamy set a new fastest lap of 3:58.234 which allowed him to end the session on top of the class with the #98 Aston Martin.