Poor weather disrupted preparations for the 81st edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Consistently on the pace throughout free practice and qualifying, it wasn’t however until the dying seconds of Thursday night’s qualifying session that Olivier Pla produced the almost perfect lap to secure pole position in the LM P2 category, a first for OAK Racing at Le Mans.
On Wednesday, free practice saw the highly anticipated arrival on track of the no.45 car driven by Jacques Nicolet, Jean-Marc Merlin and Philippe Mondolot, featuring livery that is identical to the OAK Racing Costa Art Car.
Meanwhile, Bertrand Baguette coped best with the varying grip levels on the track, setting the fastest time in the LM P2 category in the no.35 car. In spite of the heavy traffic, Olivier Pla set the third fastest time in LM P2 on his first flying lap in the no.24 car, whilst Bertrand Baguette went fifth fastest. Jacques Nicolet set the thirteenth fastest time in the category.
Although the overall performance of the three OAK Racing Morgan-Nissans was satisfactory, having used the tyres provided by Dunlop very well, three of the team’s nine drivers – Philippe Mondolot, Ricardo Gonzalez and David Heinemeier Hansson – didn’t get enough track time to complete the five night laps required for them to qualify to take part in the race.
On Thursday evening, rain fell once again in Le Mans. Sensibly, OAK Racing decided against taking any risks. Only Alex Brundle completed a few laps in the no.24 car, as the other drivers waited in the pits. As the track remained partially wet, the main objective of the final qualifying session was to ensure all the drivers qualified to take part in the race.
Philippe Mondolot, Ricardo Gonzalez and David Heinemeier Hansson hopped into the French team’s three prototypes and by around 10 o’clock, OAK Racing was safe in the knowledge that its nine drivers were all qualified for the race.
It was at the end of the session, as the track dried out, that the starting grid began to take shape. Bertrand Baguette and Olivier Pla set off in pursuit of the pole position. On his final attempt, the Frenchman moved ahead of his rivals, whilst the Belgian ran into traffic.
With a lap of 3:38.621, Olivier Pla handed OAK Racing its first ever pole position in the LM P2 category at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, ahead of G-Drive’s no.26 Oreca-Nissan and Jota’s no.38 Zytek-Nissan.
On Saturday at 3pm, the three OAK Racing Morgan-Nissans will therefore be well placed for the start of the 90th anniversary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Olivier Pla, David Heinemeier Hansson and Alex Brundle will start in pole position in the LM P2 category.
Bertrand Baguette, Ricardo Gonzalez and Martin Plowman will start from ninth position in LM P2 and Jacques Nicolet, Jean-Marc Merlin and Philippe Mondolot will start from seventeenth.
Forecasts suggest the weather could well be an important factor this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans which, as ever, looks certain to provide a magnificent test of man and machine, especially in this category.
Sébastien Philippe, Team Principal: “I don’t think that I have ever seen quite so much disruption over two days of free practice and qualifying at Le Mans. The weather was difficult, and there were a lot of incidents and consequently, many interruptions. It was difficult to complete our testing programme with a lot less track time!
This pole position in LM P2 doesn’t mean we are going to win the race, but it does have some symbolic value. It’s a very good result for the team and for Olivier. Once again, he has shown his exceptional driving skills. Now the really serious stuff begins, and I think we all hope that the weather will be a little kinder. Although we haven’t had much track time during the sessions, our nine drivers are ready.”
Olivier Pla, no.24 Morgan-Nissan LM P2: “The car was really very well balanced and enjoyable to drive. I had a clear run and, as I felt good in the car, I was able to push. On paper, securing pole position for a 24 Hours race isn’t all that useful, but it’s just rewards for the entire team and it confirms that we’re in contention, as we saw on the Test Day. Of course, the race is a different matter altogether, but we have a car that is capable of doing well.”
Bertrand Baguette, no.35 Morgan-Nissan LM P2: “We were consistent and have finished among the leaders. The car is easy on the tyres, which is very good news for the race. It’s a shame. I didn’t get one clear lap by the end of this hotly disputed qualifying session. We finished ninth in LM P2, which isn’t too bad. We’re aiming to finish on the podium and we’d be more than happy to do even better than that!”
Jacques Nicolet, no.45 Morgan-Nissan LM P2: "I’m thrilled with the work we have managed to do in these tough conditions, both at the Test Day and here during free practice and qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. My co-drivers, who are making their debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, have developed and progressed without making any mistakes, whereas unfortunately we have seen plenty of incidents and failures around us. So, we start the race in good spirits and just hope that the same will be true of the weather.”