The first qualifying session of the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans saw Toyota Gazoo Racing top the time sheets. The close battle in LMP2 saw the usual World Endurance Championship cars battling for the fastest lap, with TDS Racing getting an edge on CEFC Manor TDS Racing, Vaillante Rebellion and Jackie Chan DC Racing. Aston Martin dominated the GTE classes from the start of the session, holding onto the advantage they obtained in their first fast laps.
After an incident in the Road to Le Mans practice session that preceded the qualifying session, qualifying one was delayed by 20 minutes. Because of the track curfew, the session was shortened to 1h40m so that track action would be complete by 12am.
The cars streamed out on track as soon as the track went green, with everyone looking to set an early ‘banker’ lap. Toyota was the team to watch in the first few sectors, but a surprise fastest sector three saw Timo Bernhard put the Porsche #2 on provisional pole after the first fast laps were set. He set a 3:19.710 with a 0.013-second advantage on second-placed Sebastien Buemi.
However, Toyota quickly pitted the #7 and #8 and put in Kamui Kobayashi and Kazuki Nakajima respectively to chase down the new qualifying lap record. Neither of the two Japanese drivers managed to break the record this evening, but Kobayashi took a new fastest lap of 3:18.793 to go six-tenths faster than the competition. Nakajima could only set a 3:19.431 which was good enough for second place. Bernhard’s time was not improved on by either of his team-mates but was still quick enough to keep the #2 Porsche third, ahead of the third Toyota.
Bernhard’s time was not improved on by either of his team-mates but was still quick enough to keep the #2 Porsche third, ahead of the third Toyota. After having such an impressive end to free practice, Neel Jani could only set a time that was quick enough to leave his team car fifth.
After spending about half of the session in the pits, the #4 ByKolles Racing team was sixth overall, about ten seconds off the pace of the LMP1-Hybrids. It was faster than the quickest LMP2 car, but only by about half a second.
It looked like Manor Racing had the pace advantage through the first qualifying session. With just half an hour to go, Jean-Eric Vergne and Vitaly Petrov had locked out the top two positions in class with the #25 and #24 Manor entries. It was in the closing stages of the session that the other cars in class started to find the lap time.
Bruno Senna was the first LMP2 driver to break into the 3m29s and took a brief provisional pole position with his 3:29.851. Only moments later Matthieu Vaxiviere went half a second faster with a 3:29.333 to secure provisional pole for this evening.
For a short period of time, Ho-Pin Tung held the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA 07-Gibson in the top spot of the class, but with his team-mates unable to improve on his time the car finished fifth in class. The two Signatech Alpine entries sat sixth and seventh with Gustavo Menezes giving the #36 the advantage over the sister car. The second Rebellion #13 finished eighth, whilst Roman Rusinov rounded off the top nine in the #26 G-Drive.
The fastest non-ORECA running LMP2 finished 13th and was the #29 Racing Team Nederland Dallara in the hands of Rubens Barrichello, taking part in his first Le Mans qualifying session. The Brazilian set a lap time that was 4.463 seconds off the pace of provisional pole-sitter, Vaxiviere.
From the first flying laps, Aston Martin brought out an advantage that none of the other manufacturers could challenge. Neither of the Aston Martin Racing cars #95 or #98 lost their position at the top of their respective classes once they had obtained them.
Marco Sorensen set the pace in the #95 Aston Martin before improving to a 3:52.117 that no one challenged for the rest of the session. It was only a tenth of a second advantage on earlier pace-setter Sam Bird in the #71 AF Corse. Bird’s team-mates were unable to improve on his opening lap time so the #71 crew had to settle for second after the first qualifying session.
It was a Ferrari two-three, but the #51 488 GTE was a distant 0.888 seconds off the pace of the leading duo. The LM GTE Pro grid was fairly spread out at the top, with two seconds covering the top six. Andy Priaulx improved in the closing stages of the session to be the fastest Ford in sixth, but the time difference between Priaulx and the second fastest Ford (the #68 in 11th) was just under a second. It looks like the mid-field of the LM GTE Pro class could be very tight come the qualifying sessions tomorrow evening.
Ford and Chevrolet have been handed a disadvantage in terms of the Balance of Performance ahead of the 24-hour endurance race. The Balance of Performance can still be altered until race day, so if the FIA feel the deficit is too much Ferrari and Aston Martin could be hit with a heavier BoP. However, Chevrolet appeared to be able to cope with the extra BoP less effectively that Ford as they finished ninth and tenth in a class with 13 entrants.
Aston Martin also held the advantage from the start of the session in LM GTE Am. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche took the lead of the class for the first few minutes of the session, but as soon as Pedro Lamy had set his fast time there was no challenge to his 3:55.232. Only his team-mate, Mathias Lauda, could better the time, improving the Aston Martin #98’s provisional pole time to a 3:55.134.
Matteo Cairoli‘s original fastest time in the #77 was enough to hold on to a comfortable second place. He had a three-tenth advantage over third-placed #90 TF Sport Aston Martin when the chequered flag fell.