Pescarolo Sport LM P1s dominated qualifying both Wednesday and Thursday for the 2005 24 Hours of Le Mans, the #16 car of Jean-Christophe Boullion, Emmanuel Collard and Erik Comas took pole position just under one second ahead of the sister #17 car of Soheil Ayari, Eric Helary and Sebastien Loeb.
The two Pescarolo prototypes went our quickly in the opening few minutes as Collard and Ayari exchanged fastest times but Collard replied and held the lead for the next hour until Ayari put in a 3m 35.555s lap right at the end of the first session to take the lead going into the break. Collard responded with a 3m 34.715s on his first lap in the second and final session and was never headed, giving the all-French team the front row for Saturday's start in the historic endurance race at the 8.625-mile circuit de la Sarthe.
"There is less distance to the other cars," reflected Collard on the edge that Pescarlolo first had back on June 5th Test Day. "They have done a good job these past few days. In the right conditions it is clear the others are fast. From here it depends on the different strategies. They can surprise but everything depends on their consumption. We do not know when they will refuel."
The three Audi R8s were unable to get close to the speed chart leaders as their loss of straight-line speed prevented them from challenging for the pole. That forced the teams to spend much of the early part of the session working on finding suitable race set-ups. The drivers still pushed hard and two of the three prototypes ran off the circuit during the first hour of the session.
The Jim Gainer International Dome Mugen of Ryo Michigama, Katsumoto Kaneishi and Seiji Ara maintained a solid third place through most of the first session and gradually improved its time towards the end but a late flurry from its rivals demoted the team to seventh place at the break.
Kaneishi responded early in the final session to move up to and remain in fourth position, three tenths of a second behind the McNish and two tenths ahead of Montagny.
The Courage Competition Judd qualified in sixth position followed by the Creation Autosportif DBA Judd and the third Audi, #3 belonging to ADT Champion Racing. Behind the two Pescarolo cars the third to eighth placed cars were covered by a little over one second.
The battle of the day was for the head of the LM P2 class with several changes of lead. The Lola MG of Warren Hughes, Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton was running three seconds ahead of the Miracle Motorsports Courage AER of John Macaluso, Ian James and Andy Lally for most the first session - James gradually pulled away over several laps to build up a lead of nearly a second but this was virtually wiped out with a late charge from Thomas Erdos to close up to about a tenth of a second.
Andre then sealed the top spot with a 3m 42.301s leaving Hancock, Erdos and Lally unable to fight back with a 3m 44.752s lap. "That was fun," commented Andre. "It shows how hard the race will be."
David Brabham, Darren Turner and Stephane Sarrazin led the GT1 class for most of the first session running two seconds faster than their Aston Martin Racing sister car with co-drivers Peter Kox, Pedro Lamy and Tomas Enge. Kox had a moment at the end of a long stint that ruined his tyres and forced an early return to the pits, although the car then went back out and moved one second ahead of Brabham's Aston Martin DBRS9.
"This is a great car which is easy to drive with excellent handling," said Enge. "We have shown we are fast and are now looking forward to the race. The support here is fantastic and I am very pleased for the team."
The 2004 Le Mans winners will start the race from third on the grid. Corvette Racing's #64 with co-drivers Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen have a formidable challenge ahead to score the GT1 class victory.
Mike Rockenfeller led the GT2 class in the Alex Job Racing/BAM! Porsche 911 GT3-RSR after a strong lap at 4m 05.326s to move ahead of the battle between the Petersen/White Lightning Racing Porsche 911 GT3-RSR of Timo Bernhard, Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long and the #77 Panoz Motor Sports Esperante belonging to Bill Auberlen, Robin Liddell and Scott Maxwell.
Bergmeister unfortunately suffered an accident near Tertre Rouge in the final hour which brought the team's session to a premature end. The first session was briefly halted after 90 minutes when Jean-Bernard Bouvet went off the circuit at Indianapolis and damaged the front and the rear of his Welter Racing WR Peugeot.
"I'm not sure. I went into that turn, not even flat which it is usually flat in qualifying, and it just rolled over suddenly," explained Bergmeister. "I am not sure what happened, but I'm OK."
The action was mostly concentrated around the final fifteen minutes of the first session and then the first fifteen minutes of the second session with the times changing substantially during those periods. For the rest of the time the teams acknowledged the fact that there was little point running at qualifying pace for a substantial amount of time in the dark and so concentrated on set-up work.
The race day warm-up will take place between 9am and 9.45am local time (07:00 and 07:45 GMT) on Saturday with the 24 Hours race starting at 4pm local time (14:00 GMT) that afternoon (1:00pm EDT in the USA).