While some teams made improvements during Thursday's four hours of qualifying, Team Peugeot Total's 908 HDi-FAPs didn't better its times from Wednesday. But that didn't change things up front, as the French Lions retained the first three starting positions for the 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Stephane Sarrazin's quick lap of 3:18.513 set Wednesday evening in the No. 8 Peugeot was a record breaker. It was the fastest any driver has been around Circuit de La Sarthe since 1989 - one year before the addition of the two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight. Sarrazin's flier was nearly eight seconds quicker than his pole time here last year, making it an impressive feat for the diesel-powered coupe.
"A fast lap here calls for an extremely precise driving style, but I feel so confident with this car; it is wonderfully balanced," Sarrazin said. "We have done some solid work since pre-qualifying and I'm very pleased with the race set-up we have found. It also suits Pedro and Alex, and that's obviously very important. The thing now is to analyze all the information we have collected to determine what sort of pace we can put in during the race."
Sarrazin and co-drivers Pedro Lamy and Alexander Wurz will be looking to topple Audi's recent stranglehold at Le Mans. Aside from Bentley's win in 2003, which was run in conjunction with Team Joest, the last time a non-VAG brand to claim victory dates back to 1999, when BMW broke through with its V12 LMR. Can history be made on Sunday?
The No. 9 Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Christian Klien and Ricardo Zonta will start second, despite an accident during today's first session. Zonta said he was hit by the Terramos Courage-Oreca Mugen while exiting the Porsche Curves, causing the car to go straight off in the barriers. Significant front-end damage was sustained, but nothing the Peugeot mechanics can't fix for race day.
"I was out working on the race set-up and tailing an Audi when we came up behind a slower car into one of the Porsche Curves left-handers," Zonta explained. "The driver of that car pulled over to the right, seemingly to let the Audi through and I went for the same gap. I had practically passed when I suddenly felt him clout my rear right corner and the impact sent me off the track into the wall. Did he fail to see me, or did he have a problem? I don't know, but it's obviously a shame that it put an early end to our programme."
Nicolas Minassian, Marc Gene and Jacques Villeneuve clocked the third quickest time overall, a 3:21.846. The No. 7 entry is lucky enough to be here, as the team only completed building up a new chassis earlier this week because of Gene's accident in the test day. But all three Peugeots are now locked and loaded for the race.
"We all know it's going to be a long race and we are all aware that we won't know how it ends until Sunday afternoon, but we've shown that the car is competitive and that the basic concept is sound," said Peugeot Sport Director Michel Barge. "Our only big setback was the incident in which the No. 9 car was hit by another car. That's given a great deal of work, but we've already completed much of it. After the need to rebuild the No. 7 car last week, it's yet another challenge for the team and we've had a very, very busy two-week build-up to this year's Le Mans 24 Hours!"
Two of the three Audi Sport Team Joest R10 TDIs made improvements on its times from yesterday, with the No. 2 entry of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen holding on to the fourth starting spot. A 3:23.847 set today was improved on yesterday's time, but not enough to gain a position on the grid.
"Tonight's session was very positive," McNish said. "Like the previous evening, we didn't look at it as pure qualifying so spent time further improving the balance and consistency which allowed us to set similar fast times like the Peugeots. Tom, Dindo and I are all very comfortable in the car -- whether it be on full or near empty tanks, used or fresh tires - we're extremely happy. This allows us to be confident to attack immediately from the green light."
The No. 3 Audi of Mike Rockenfeller, Lucas Luhr and Alexandre Premat will start fifth, following a 3:24.287 set yesterday.
"Maybe the starting position in a 24 Hour race is important for the ego of the driver but it is certainly not for the result of the race," Luhr said. "Our competitors are fast, there is no doubt. But I'm sure that with a good strategy, our great mechanics and a good teamwork we will show up stronger on Saturday and Sunday. During the last days we worked hard and learned a lot. Now I'm looking forward to show that in the race."
The Audi freight train was broken by the No. 10 Charouz Racing Systems Lola B08/60 Aston Martin, which stormed to the sixth quickest time. The unique LM P1 coupe driven by Stefan Mucke, Jan Charouz and Tomas Enge encountered gearshift problems yesterday but was able to set a 3:25.158 lap time in today's night session. This dropped the No. 1 Audi of two-time defending race winners Marco Werner, Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela to seventh, despite Werner making a last-ditch effort in the closing moments of the session to improve.
While the Aston Martin-powered Lola was quickest of the gasoline-powered machines, the Dome Racing Team S102 Judd has proven to be fast as well. The all-Japanese lineup of Daisuke Ito, Kasuho Takahashi and Tatsuya Kataoka ended up eighth, improving on its time from yesterday.
The No. 16 Pescarolo Sport Judd of Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Romain Dumas returned to the track today after making repairs to the French chassis following an accident suffered yesterday. It slotted in ninth, ahead of the No. 5 Team Oreca Matmut Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd.
Following last night's incident-packed second session, a few more teams have now faced setbacks. Most significantly, this included the Creation Autosportif CA07 AIM of Stuart Hall, who had a heavy impact with the barrier while exiting the esses at Tetre Rouge. The incident immediately brought out the red flag as the marshals ran onto the track to stop traffic. Hall was visibly shaken and taken away in a neck brace but escaped serious injury. But the car suffered major front and rear damage, giving the Creation boys lots of work to do on Friday.
Another team that will be busy rebuilding its car is Kruse Shiller Motorsport. What looked to be a weekend-ending crash by Hideki Noda during Wednesday night's qualifying apparently did not cause a big enough dent to end the team's Le Mans quest. John Doonan, manager of Mazda Motorsports team development, said the Lola B05/40 Mazda suffered some tub damage in the end-over-end accident, but the team expects to repair it in time for Saturday's warm-up. Lola is shipping in additional parts needed to get the car ready for the race. Noda, who was uninjured in the accident, will pilot the car with Jean de Portales and Allan Simonsen.
While the face of the grid in P1 remained relatively unchanged from Wednesday, there were new pole sitters in the other three categories. In LM P2, Jos Verstappen ran a 3:32.301 in his Van Merksteijn Motorsport Porsche RS Spyder, taking the top spot away from the Team Essex Porsche. Verstappen and co-drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and team owner Peter van Merksteijn installed its race engine last night and the new powerplant paid dividends.
"It went very smoothly," Verstappen said. "Yesterday, I knew that I could do better and today I did. The car is getting better every time we go out and I get to learn the track better all the time as well. My fastest lap wasn't perfect as I lost some time in traffic twice. Thanks also to the mechanics who have greatly contributed to this achievement with their quick and perfect work during the engine change."
Team Essex's Porsche of John Nielsen, Casper Elgaard and Porsche factory driver Sascha Maassen dropped to second quickest, with a time a further second back from the Dutch RS Spyder. The Dunlop-shod Danish entry should be strong in the race, as Porsche will embark on its first 24-hour race with its RS Spyders. Barazi Epsilon's Zytek 07S wound up third, with a 3:35.344 set on Wednesday.
In LM GT1, Corvette Racing's Jan Magnussen scored the pole position in an exciting battle in Thursday's second session. The Dane's 3:47.669 lap time in the No. 63 Corvette C6.R was nearly 4.5 seconds faster than the Corvette's qualifying run last year.
"It didn't start off too well because we were all packed together," Magnussen recalled of his pole-winning lap. "I thought I'd be able to pass two GT2 cars in front of me on my out lap, but I didn't catch them until Tertre Rouge on my first flyer. I lost some time on the straightaway, but just as I was starting to get angry, a prototype whipped past me. I got into his slipstream and got back all of the time I'd lost!"
It was the first pole for a Corvette at Le Mans since 1976 when John Greenwood set the fast time in the IMSA class. Despite its five class wins since coming here in 2000, neither of the Pratt & Miller-run cars has ever secured the top spot before. Perhaps the pole position will mean extra luck for Magnussen and co-drivers Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell?
"Winning the pole at Le Mans is historic, but at some point in time it was also inevitable," said Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. "It's a testament to the team's perseverance, dedication to the mission, flawless preparation, and most of all, to GM management's belief in the value of this program. That commitment has allowed Corvette Racing to compete here at Le Mans for nine consecutive years, and that continuity is what produces success."
Christophe Bouchut in the Larbre Competition Saleen S7R continued to impress, as the rapid Frenchman ripped off a 3:47.761 late in second session to claim second. Bouchut had ambitions of putting the mid-engined supercar on pole, but he came up 0.093 seconds short. Bouchut and co-drivers Patrick Bornhauser and David Halladay will face an uphill battle going against the factory-backed Corvettes and Aston Martins.
The No. 64 Corvette Racing entry of Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis ended up third, also improving on its time from Wednesday. Their 3:48.539 lap time edged the two Aston Martin Racing DBR9s, which have yet to show the pace to the Corvettes and Larbre Saleen.
Patrick Long stormed to the LM GT2 pole position, posting a 3:58.152 lap time in today's night session. The American Porsche factory driver is part of the IMSA Performance Matmut squad, the defending class winners. Long and co-drivers Raymond Narac and Richard Lietz have the upper edge again in their quest for two in a row.
"It was a tough fight against the other Porsche drivers and our rivals from Ferrari," Long said. So this makes it even more wonderful to come out on top when in fact our focus was on finding a good race setup. You notice the positive further developments of the 911 mostly in the fast Porsche Curves, where the car is much calmer compared to last year."
Friday is a rest day for most teams as they prepare for the race start on Saturday afternoon. However, fans will be treated to an open pit walk to see the cars up close and personal. Then, in the afternoon, the very popular driver's parade will rip up the streets of downtown Le Mans.