Both Neel Jani and Timo Bernhardt clocked qualifying times in the latest Porsche 919 Hybrid that eclipse the previous record. At 3:16.887 and 3:17.767, both Porsche factory works drivers beat the record 3:18.51 qualifying time achieved by Stéphane Sarrazin in the Peugeot 908 back in 2008.
We should note, however, that these times are for the current track configuration. The outright qualifying record for any configuration still belongs to – you guessed it, also Porsche. Pedro Rodríguez pole position in 1971 in the Porsche 917 at 3:13.90. His teammate Jackie Oliver lapped even faster during the practice session at 3:13.6, and went on to set the fastest race lap that same year, which still stands at 3:18.4.
The long and short of it, though, is that Porsche has been and remains the force to be reckoned with when it comes to outright pace around the French circuit. All that remains to be seen is whether the team can translate that pace into victory over the defending Le Mans winners at Audi and the reigning World Endurance Champions at Toyota.
Porsche beats all records!
As expected, this first day will be have been marked by the domination of the Porsche 919 Hybrid cars during the first qualifying practice and who totally smashed the record of the track. But let's be careful, Audi isn't far behind. In LM P2, an Oreca 05 from Team KCMG finished in front whereas the Aston Martins excelled in LM GTE Pro and LM GTE Am.
During the free practice sessions that took place between 4 and 8pm, the competitors began carefully on a drying track after the afternoon rain. The red flag was presented only 5 minutes after the opening of the track because of an immobilized driver who had made a mistake (without any other consequence other than this neutralization) at braking point in the chicane ForzaMotorsport (first of the two chicanes on the Hunaudières). The British driver Richard Bradley was the cause of this behind the steering wheel of the Oreca 05 n°47 of the Hong Kong team KCMG. The prototype LM P2 was brought back to the pits on the breakdown truck. A little later, the same Richard Bradley did the best time of the free session on this Oreca 05 n°47.
Audi and Toyota, then Porsche, accelerate
A few minutes after the restart of the session, the prototypes Audi and Toyota were the first to produce significant timing. Just before 6pm the first offensive of the Porsche cars 919 Hybrid saw Mark Webber and Nicky Tandy establish the first references of the evening with 3'22. 228 and 3'22.819 on the n°17 and n°19. Marc Lieb wasn't late to slip in his n°18 between its team cars with 3'22.491. Marc Webber came very close to the 2014 pole position with 3'21.796 and beat the score with 3'21,362.
41 minutes of neutralization
At 6.14pm the session was neutralized because of a contact of the Oreca 03R n°48 with the American driver Mark Patterson on the inside of the Porsche corner and because of the immobilization of the Rebellion R-One n°13 at the beginning of the Hunaudières straight. The session restarted at 6.55pm. Loïc Duval placed the Audi n°8 between the three Porsche cars. Timing decreased but with the rain that seemed to come back on the circuit, the enthusiasm of the head drivers was held back.
Only Romain Dumas was to be faster in his n°18 but his timing wasn't taken into consideration because of a non valid trajectory in the Ford corner. The four wheels of his Porsche 919 Hybrid n°18 had crossed the limits of the track to avoid a Ferrari GT.
Mark Webber, the fastest driver of the free practice sessions
If we go by the performances, this session of free practice, with 50 minutes less, was therefore dominated by Mark Webber's Porsche 919 Hybrid n°17 who kept the best time with 3'21 362. A faster timing than the 2014 pole position but not as fast as his team driver Brendon Hartley (3'21.062) during the Test Day on the 31st May.
At 10pm, after two hours of pause, the first session of qualifying practice begun. A breathtaking session with the Porsche 919 Hybrid constantly on the alert. Neel Jani and Timo Bernhardt were successively beating the lap record in qualifying by establishing times of 3'16. 887 and 3'17.767. The last record dates back in 2008 and was established by Stéphane Sarrazin in a Peugeot 908. An exceptional performance with regards to the 24 Hours of Le Mans regulations set up in 2014 that allowed to reduce the consumption of LM P1 prototypes by nearly 25% equal performance, if not better as we can see with these records.
At 10.55pm, three cars, the Audis R18 n°7 and n°9 as well as the Gibson 0155 n°41 were said to be in difficulty in different areas around the circuit provoking the neutralization of the qualifying session during 30 minutes. If the two Audis were able to regain the pits, the damaged n°41 driven by Gaëtan Paletou, had to be freed of the protections at Mulsanne.
At the end of these qualifying sessions, the Porsche 919 Hybrid n°18 (Dumas, Jani, Lieb) signed the best timing with 3'16"887 in front of its team car, n°17 (Webber, Bernhard, Hartley) at 8 tenths and the third Porsche 919 Hybrid n°19 (Tandy, Hulkenberg, Bamber) at 2,4 seconds. Then follow the three Audis R18 e-tron Quattro n°8, n°9 and n°7 placing themselves between 3 and 5 seconds from the Porsche cars. Then come the Toyotas n°2 and n°1 who remained behind their competitors Audi and Porsche at nearly 7 seconds. The first private cars of Rebellion Racing placed themselves at 9 and 15 seconds in front of the first Nissan GTR LM Nismo, n°23 which continued its progress with 3'38"488.
The fastest LM P2 is the Oreca05 Nissan n°47 (Lapierre, Bradley, Howson) with 3'38"032. In LM GTE Pro, the best time goes to the official Aston Martin (McDowall, Rees, Stanaway) n°99 with 3'54"928 and in LM GTE Am another Aston Martin n°98 (Dalla Lana, Lamy, Lauda) with 3'55"102.
Return of the 56 competitors of the 24 Hours of Le Mans tomorrow as from 7pm for another four hours of qualifying practice (7pm-9pm and 10pm-midnight).
The departure of the 83rd edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be given on Saturday 13th June at 3.00pm.