Stephen Errity, ELMS correspondent
A few sprinkles of rain ahead of the 20-minute protoype qualifying session encouraged the majority of the nine-strong ELMS LMP2 field to head out of the pits early and bank a time in case it started raining heavily. Stephane Sarrazin in the Sebastien Loeb Racing Oreca set down an early marker of 1:21.9, but Mathieu Lahaye quickly shaved nine-tenths of a second off that time in the #24 OAK Racing Morgan he shares with team boss Jacques Nicolet.
By the halfway point of the session, the top six runners were covered by a second, and this had expanded to the top eight with only seven minutes to go. Lahaye then improved his time again, becoming the only driver to break in to the 1:20s. Despite a final effort in the dying minutes of the session from renowned qualifying specialist Sarrazin, the black-and-pink OAK machine would retain pole position until the end of the session.
Second on the grid went to Matthias Beche in the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca, a tenth and a half behind Lahaye. Jota Sport's Sam Hancock won the battle of the Zytek teams by taking third, ahead of Greaves Motorsport in fifth. Slotting in between them was Olivier Pla in the second of the two Morgan OAKs – this one running a Nissan engine as opposed to Lahaye's Judd. But the Frenchman reckoned the difference between the two cars was down to more than their powerplants: “As you saw in practice, the #35 had a lot of problems with their fuel rig, and Olivier hasn't raced here before, so he was learning the track,” he noted, adding that he expects his team-mates to be closer in tomorrow's race.
More notably, this was Lahaye's first pole position in sportscar racing. “We had good pace in Le Mans but the final result was disappointing [the car retired after 10 hours], so a good result here is very important,” he said after the session. “Even though it's a small grid, the LMP2 class is at a very high level and it will be a good fight tomorrow. We have no LMP1 traffic to deal with so everyone will be going flat-out for the full six hours.”
Status Grand Prix's Lola coupe will line up sixth tomorrow, ahead of the Loeb Racing and Murphy Prototyopes Orecas in seventh and eighth. Murphy driver Firth explained his car's relative lack of pace comapred to the free practice sessions: “We made a small set-up change this afternoon to try to draw more qualifying speed out of the car, but it had the opposite effect and made the car worse than in practice,” he said. “On a positive note, we obviously know what the set-up was for practice and can revert the car back to that for very good race pace. It was a frustrating qualifying session for me, though, as I couldn't attack on the track, and although we were only a second off pole, it's still disappointing.”
Finally in LMP2, a curiosuly off-form Pecom Racing Oreca of Luis Perez-Companc, Pierre Kaffer and Soheil Ayari qualified ninth. Frenchman Thomas Dagenau qualified the sole LMPC-class car entered here at Donington, which is being run by Belgian outfit Boutsen Ginion Racing. He and team-mates John Harthsorne and Jean-Charles Battut have no-one to race but themselves tomorrow – although they may struggle to finish ahead of what is a very quick GT field.
The three GT cars qualified before the prototype contingent, and although a dark cloud or two hung in the sky, the rain held off for the duration of the 20-minute session. It was a case of waiting to see which of the three entered teams would blink and set a lap first. With only 11 minutes to go, Marco Cioci broke the tension and set an initial time of 1:31 in the AF Corse Ferrari, followed not long behind by Jonny Cocker in the JMW Racing Pro-class car and Nicolas Armindo in the IMSA Matmut Porsche.
ALMS regular Cocker quickly brought the benchmark time down to 1:30 dead, before shaving a further six-tenths off and putting his GT pole position beyond doubt with around five minutes remaining of the session. The young Briton parked his 458 at this stage, as did Cioci, who had got his time down to 1:29.7. This would be enough to win the Am-class pole battle with IMSA Performance, despite Nicolas Armindo putting in some very entertaining last-gasp efforts in the 911, smoking the tires and bouncing off the kerbs several times around the lap.
“It was the strangest pole position of my career, but I'm happy and looking forward to the race tomorrow,” beamed Cocker afterwards. At the time of writing, there is still some confusion over who will partner Cocker in tomorrow's race. His original co-driver James Walker had to withdraw when his wife went into labour, and the team has not yet confirmed whether UK-based Dane Alan Simonsen or British GT and Blancpain Endurance Series regular Matt Bell, will take his place.
Cioci, meanwhile, predicted a close battle for Am-class honours with the IMSA Porsche. “It was important to get a championship point for pole position,” he said. “We could lack straight-line speed compared to the Ferrari tomorrow, so it should be a good race.”