Stephen Errity, Le Mans Correspondent
History was made on Circuit de la Sarthe with a Hybrid on the pole
Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler will start the 80th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours from pole, giving them the best possible chance of repeating their victory from last year. However this year, the #1 Audi is an R18 e-tron Quattro. Joining the #1 car on the front row is the #3 Audi R18 Ultra of Romain Dumas, Loic Duval, and Marc Gene.
While Toyota did better than many expected by ending up splitting the four Audis to lineup third; the eventual pole position time was set only 10 minutes into the session. Despite nearly all the works cards attempting fast times in the dying minutes, Andre Lotterer's earlier benchmark of 3:23.787 would not be beaten.
Anthony Davidson in the #8 TS030 was able to improve, however, taking his car up to third from the fourth place it had sat for much of the session. Even a determined Tom Kristensen in the sister hybrid Audi was unable to deliver the goods, and Allan McNish will start that car fourth alongside Davidson's Toyota on Saturday. The #7 Toyota also improved towards the end of the session, overhauling the second diesel Audi to line up fifth.
As expected, none of the privateer petrol-engine cars were able to break the diesel and hybrid stranglehold, but Strakka Racing nonetheless confirmed their position as favourites for victory in this unofficial class come Sunday afternoon. Lead driver Danny Watts got the car around the circuit in 3:32.750, putting down a clear marker for the HPD team's strongest rivals: the two-car Anglo-Swiss Rebellion Racing squad, who claimed eighth and ninth in their Lola coupes.
The #17 Pescarolo-run Dome S102.5 set a time good enough for tenth overall before Seiji Ara brought out the red flags by crashing the car in the Porsche curves after contact with another car. He was uninjured and the car was not severely damaged, but the Pescarolo crew will have some repair work to do tomorrow all the same. The red flags were lifted with just under an hour to go, and the session time was not extended.
Earlier, the first of the evening's two-hour sessions passed by largely without incident, with most cars not going for outright pace at that time. There were a number of minor offs, however, with the #24 OAK Racing LMP2 car ending up in the gravel at one point and the #40 Race Performance Oreca-Judd stopping at Mulsanne corner.
Towards the end of those first two hours, the #38 Jota Zytek with Sam Hancock at the wheel got crossed up through the Ford Chicane and hit the outside barrier. Although the damage was not severe, the team elected not to run in the later session in order to save spare parts for the race.
The two other Zyteks in the race, run by fellow British team Greaves Motorsport, ended the session 11th and 15th – driver Alex Brundle having said earlier that their focus throughout the qualifying sessions was on race preparation. LMP2 qualifying was instead all about the numerically superior Oreca-Nissans.
ADR-Delta team came close to winning at the previous WEC round in Spa, so Tor Graves, John Martin and new addition to the roster Jan Charouz will be hoping to turn pole position into their first win of the championship at the weekend. Second in class were the Oak Racing trio of Jacques Nicolet, Mathieu Lahaye and Olivier Pla – the latter setting the car's quick time – while third went to the less fancied of the two Signatech Nissan entries: the #26 of Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and Roman Rusinov.
It was hard to find a driver at Le Mans who would admit he wanted to shoot for pole, with many giving the familiar explanations of focusing on race setup and qualifying not counting for much in a 24-hour race. Some cars, such as the Nissan DeltaWing and #29 Gulf Racing Lola, still had drivers who had yet to run their mandatory five night-time laps to qualify for the race, and the worryingly slow drivers of the #29 car in particular will have to rely on the goodwill of the stewards if they want to take the start on Saturday afternoon.