Qualifying 1 (Q1) for the Le Mans 24 Hour went off on Wednesday night without too much fanfare or drama. Before that Free Practice 1 (FP1) in the afternoon offered the teams the opportunity to put their cars and drivers through the paces at will and so not too much can be read into the times posted then. But the first night session was obligatory as all the drivers have to spend time behind the wheel in both daylight and at night in order to qualify for the race on the weekend.
Thankfully the heavy, intermittent showers of the previous couple of days had left us, and the whole of Q1 was run in dry warm conditions. For the four works cars, it was business as usual as these cars and drivers took up the challenge for the top of the lap charts. With the exception of ‘Gimmi’ Bruni (#91), all other eleven works drivers are very familiar with the 911. Bruni, while being one of the most experienced of the GTE drivers in the entire field, has had the least amount of time behind the wheel of a 911. Only thing was though, that nobody told Bruni that little fact, and so the likeable Italian proceeded to set the fastest lap of the session on his first lap out, a time that was a second and a half quicker than anybody else for that entire session.
The only problem for Bruni was that he picked up a puncture at the start of his second lap, entering turn 1 just past the pit exit, and the front right tyre destroyed the bodywork and sent him spinning into the gravel. There was no injury to Bruni, and the #91 Rothmans Racing heritage liveried car will be ready for today’s Q2 and Q3 sessions this evening.
At the end of the evening, the second placed car was the #92 Porsche RSR in the Pink Pig livery, which seemed to be running like clockwork in the capable hands of Christensen/Estre/Vanthoor. Nine tenths of a second further back in sixth place was the #94 RSR of Dumas/Bernhard/Müller, while the #93 RSR of Pilet/Tandy/Bamber was one place further back in seventh.
In the GTE Am camp, Porsches occupied positions 1-2-3 and fifth, in a strong show of force. Of course the only difference between the Pro and Am Porsches is a BoP class differential, the cars are otherwise exactly the same in both classes. Here the #88 Dempsey-Proton Racing RSR of Cairoli/Al Qubaisi/Roda topped the tables by a little more than a second from the #77 car of the same team, driven by Campbell/Ried/Andlauer. In the hunt was the #86 Gulf Racing RSR of Wainwright/Barker/Davison who finished in third place.
Making an impressive move up the lap charts was the #56 Project 1 RSR driven by Bergmeister/Lindsey/Perfetti. Although the team finished the night in fifth position, the team has obviously learned lessons and benefited from working together at the season-opening race at Spa. The gap from the #56 car to the class leader is just short of three seconds, but if the indications of how quickly the team is showing signs of improvement from Spa to Le Mans are anything to go by, then the rest of the Qualifying sessions should be really interesting.
The #80 Ebimotors RSR finished the session down in eleventh place, but theirs is also a question of learning the structures, systems, and procedures. Their car is performing well enough, and although the team is highly experienced, this is their first visit to Le Mans as a team and there is still much to learn. For driver Fabio Babini, this is his eighth visit to Le Mans, for Christina Nielsen it is her third run in the French classic endurance race, while Erik Maris is competing in his fifth Le Mans race.
Unfortunately for the #99 Proton Competition RSR, the car spent the first hour of the two-hour Q1 session in the pit garage, being poured over by the team’s mechanics. The bright green 911 RSR, driven by the vastly experienced trio of Long/Pappas/Pumpelly, left the pits at 23h00 and was able to complete twelve laps before the session closed at midnight.
The only downside of Porsche’s successful horde of top places is that they are likely to be hit with a BoP adjustment, aimed at pegging back their performance. But this is modern-day racing, and increasingly some inside the teams are voicing their dissatisfaction with this artificially created balancing system. More and more team personnel are saying that the cars should be built according to a set of regulations for that class, and let the fastest car win. The realities of endurance racing will bring its own uncertainties and unpredictabilities, so there is no need to try to match all the cars’ very different performance characteristics, to ensure a calculated finish. The road cars on which these GTE contenders are based, all offer their owners a different driving experience, and so it should be on the race track too.
So it’s all down to strategy and tactics and we look forward to seeing how their performance plays out in the big race. We will know the outcome of the final qualifying session tonight, so be sure to check back on our website for the latest news.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney