Though the #7 Toyota Racing held onto the pole position they had taken over during the first of the Thursday qualifying sessions for the 24 Hours of Le Mans they needed a lap from Kazuki Nakajima to keep them clear of the best of the Porsche 919 Hybrids.
The day’s earlier session had been another blighted by red flags, thus organisers decided to start the final session a half hour early, helping teams and drivers make up for the loss of running in the previous sessions. Mercifully given the number of high-speed accidents so far this week at Le Mans the session ran red flag free.
There were smaller incidents. Alvaro Parente spun his RAM Racing Ferrari into the Ford Chicane barriers inside of the first half hour, while the LMGTE Am 8Star Motorsports 458 Italia went into the tyre wall at the start of the Porsche Curves under the cover of darkness.
Both that incident and Karun Chandhok crashing of the Murphy Prototypes LMP2 entry at Indianapolis launched the new ‘slowzone’ protocol, where a section of track is governed by a 60km/h speed limit with the intention of allowing most accidents to be cleared without resorting for safety car periods or red flags.
While the slowzones kept the cars on the track they proved to be just as disruptive as red flags when it came to qualifying. Chandhok’s off with 15 minutes of the session to go led to a limited section of track that remained in place through to the end of the session. That removed any chance of a pole shootout finale to the qualifying session, making Nakajima’s early lap all the more important.
The Japanese, who shares the #7 TS040 with Alex Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin, was one of several drivers to start the session with quick laps as the top times in all four classes improved, though the pole position holders in both LMP1 and LMP2 remained the same
However, Nakajima’s pulling of the pole time down to 3:21.789 was necessary as Romain Dumas was another to improve in the early laps of the session, improving the #14 Porsche 919 Hybrid’s best time to 3:22.146. Dumas will share the car with Neel Jani and Marc Lieb for the 24 Hours.
Toyota’s #8 entry will start third, Sebastien Buemi inserting his charge between the pair of Porsches, the #20 failing to improve during the final session, as did the #3 and #2 Audi R18 e-tron Quattro. The troubled #1 team – the car once again repaired following Lucas di Grassi second session off – did improve, but remained seventh fastest overall.
Harry Tincknell and Jann Mardenborough led LMP2 through their own early laps though the pair – driving for Jota Sport and OAK Racing respectively were pushed back a place when Tristan Gommendy lapped the Circuit de la Sarthe in 3:37.609 aboard his Thiriet by TDS Racing Ligier-Nissan, retaking the top spot in the class with a time four tenths faster than that which had given them the provisional pole for the brief gap between sessions.
Olivier Pla improved the G-Drive Racing Morgan-Nissan up to fourth on a 3:38-flat, the top five in the class covered by less than a second.
The same gulf in time – and more – lay between Gianmaria Bruni and the next best LMGTE Pro runner. The Italian seized the class pole with an early lap, lopping nearly two seconds off the best time set by his #51 AF Corse Ferrari shared by he, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander.
Though Antonio Garcia moved the best time of the #73 Corvette Racing team down to 3:54.777 his improvement in the car that held class pole after the earlier session made little impression on Bruni’s 3:53.700. Darren Turner gave the #97 Aston Martin Racing Vantage – now the only one in the Pro class – third fastest.
Defending class winners Porsche will start sixth and seventh, the #91 entry hitting problems early in the session, stopping at the end of the pitlane after completing just four laps.
Amid the best of the Pro GTE cars will start AF Corse’s #81 courtesy of a stellar lap (3:54.665) from Sam Bird in the car he shares with Michele Rugolo and Steve Wyatt. Aston Martin Racing’s pair of entries start second and third in class with the 35th and 37th best times overall with the #98 ahead of the all-Dane #95.
AF Corse’s #61 that held the provisional pole after the second session will start from fourth in class despite Marco Cioci improving the entry’s best time.
The Nissan ZEOD RC set a best lap of 3:50.185, placing it in the space in time between the rear of the LMP2 field and the fastest GTE entries.
Friday offers the 24 Hours teams a respite from track activity, before a 45-minute warm-up sets the stage for the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself.
www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk‘s coverage of the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans continues with hour-by-hour reports throughout the race alongside live text coverage.