Mark Webber topped the timesheets for the opening practice session of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The #17 Porsche 919 Hybrid driver recorded a 3:21.362s lap in the middle portion of the four hour session, which was marginally quicker than Kazuki Nakajima’s pole position time from last year.
Webber was half a second quicker than Loic Duval in the #8 Audi, while Neel Jani rounded out the top three in the #18 Porsche.
Toyota remained off the pace, although technical director Pascal Vasselon’s promise to reduce the test day deficit did get fulfilled. Even so, Anthony Davidson’s 3:24.763s lap in the #1 TS040 was still three seconds off the overall pace, while the #2 machine was a further second adrift.
The Nissan GTR-LM NISMO is continuing to improve, although all three remain around 20 seconds off the pace of the leaders. The car’s top speed continues to impress, however, with Tsugio Matsuda (#21) generating the fourth highest figure on the leaderboard.
Intermittent rainfall throughout the session prompted several off-track excursions, notably the Murphy Prototypes ORECA 03R which left the track at the Porsche Curves and brought out the red flag. The #13 Rebellion of Alexandre Imperatori also hit trouble later in the session, with the Swiss driver pulling over on the Mulsanne Straight after reportedly hitting the barrier.
Porsche driver Romain Dumas also had a hairy moment negotiating the Ford Chicane. The Frenchman had to take evasive action against a GTE Ferrari, which caused his 919 Hybrid to bounce over the inside kerbs, spraying sparks in spectacular fashion. Despite keeping the car intact and shaving off a fraction of his lap time, Dumas was unable to keep his lap after the stewards deemed the move to be worthy of a track limits violation.
In LMP2, the KCMG squad recovered from an early water pressure problem in its ORECA 05 coupe to top the class leaderboard. British driver Richard Bradley delivered the lowest number with a 3:39.897s lap time, 1.4 seconds quicker than OAK Racing’s Laurens Vanthoor.
SMP Racing’s Mikhail Aleshin had briefly stood as the fastest driver in the team’s scarcely raced BR01, although his early benchmark was soon swallowed up by a host of drivers later in the session as the track dried. Ludovic Badey was one, pedalling the Thiriet by TDS Racing ORECA 05 3:41.742s lap time, while a 3:42.163s best from Jon Lancaster brought the Greaves Gibson – the fastest of the open top runners – into the top four.
The #26 G-Drive Racing Ligier, which currently leads the FIA World Endurance Championship standings, completed the top five, while Strakka Racing, ESM and Pegasus Racing all finished the session in the top ten.
The GTE-Pro manufacturers’ battle will be as, if not more, hotly contested than its LMP1 equivalent, although Aston Martin Racing emerged as the clear pacesetter after the first day of practice. Single seater convert Richie Stanaway’s time of 3:55.895s was 1.6 seconds faster than Tommy Milner in the #64 Corvette, and another second above the quickest Porsche.
Stanaway’s team-mate Alex MacDowall consolidated the pace of the #99 car, which they share with Fernando Rees, by setting the third best time of the day. MacDowall was duly followed by Stefan Mucke in the #97 art car, who finished the session 2.2 seconds in arrears.
Aston Martin’s form continued outside the confines of GTE-Pro, as Pedro Lamy produced another chart-topping performance in the Am variant aboard the #98 car that he shares with Mathias Lauda and Paul Dalla Lana. The Portuguese ex-F1 driver has been mercurial in the Am seat so far this year, recording a time that was nearly 3 seconds faster than the second quickest effort, posted by Patrick Long in the Dempsey Porsche.
A flurry of dry laps at the end of the session saw Klaus Bachler bring the Abu Dhabi Racing Porsche up to third, marginally ahead of Paolo Ruberti in the Larbre Corvette, which stopped on the Mulsanne in the closing minutes.