As expected, Team Peugeot Total set the pace on Wednesday at Circuit de La Sarthe, as the Peugeot 908 HDi-FAPs swept the first three starting positions provisionally for Saturday's 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 8 diesel-powered LM P1 coupe clocked a 3:18.513 lap time during the first two-hour session of the evening, and the record-setting time held for the remainder of the night.
Sarrazin's blisteringly quick lap around the 8.5-mile French circuit was over three seconds quicker than his time set two weeks ago at the test day. If the time holds through Thursday's additional four hours of qualifying, Peugeot and Sarrazin would score their second consecutive overall pole position.
"My car is incredibly competitive and I was fortunate to find a lap that was relatively free of traffic," Sarrazin said. "I had a bit of understeer early on but we soon succeeded in curing that, and I think we were especially quick through the faster portions"
Franck Montagny in the team's No. 9 entry turned the second quickest time of the evening, 0.169 seconds adrift from his teammates' lap. The freshly built No. 7 machine of Nicolas Minassian was third, not able to break the coveted 3:20 barrier. Minassian's 3:20.451 lap time was still impressive, given the team only completed building the car Monday night.
"The crash involving the No. 7 car during the preliminary test-day gave us the added challenge of having to build a new car in just one week, but the mechanics and technicians did a remarkable job," team director Michel Barge said. "We gave the car its shakedown run here on the airfield next to the circuit only yesterday evening. It was important to post some quick times tonight because the weather could be unsettled for tomorrow's session. Once that had been done, we were able to concentrate on our programme."
Heading into qualifying, Audi already had conceded any hopes of netting the pole position. Sure enough, the German diesels slotted in position four through six provisionally, with the fastest R10 TDI turning a best lap time over five seconds slower than Sarrazin.
The No. 2 Audi Sport North America entry of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen was the quickest of the R10 TDIs, with a 3:24.105 lap time. Mike Rockenfeller, Lucas Luhr and Alexandre Premat in the No. 3 car was fifth overall, ahead of the No. 1 machine of defending race winners Marco Werner, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro with a rather distant 3:27.580 lap time.
"Today we were certain it would stay dry, so we focused on working out a good set-up," Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Motorsport said. "Despite some red flags we completed a comprehensive programme with all three cars and found a good set-up for all three cars. If it is not dry tomorrow, at least we are sorted out from this side."
While the diesel P1s ran a rather uneventful evening, two accidents slowed the session, one a violent crash bringing the night session to an abrupt end. With the clock nearing midnight, Hideki Noda in the No. 44 Kruse Shiller Motorsport Lola B05/40 Mazda suffered a huge off at the Dunlop Chicane, sending the LM P2 car in a dramatic end-over-end barrel roll. Noda climbed out unscaved, but the car was destroyed, presumably un-repairable in time for the race.
"It was a nasty crash and not what we needed," said a dissapointed Allan Simonsen. "Now we go on the next phase and see how the car is. We'll find out later, but it looked big."
Romain Dumas piloting the No. 16 Pescarolo Sport Judd was the victim of another accident, occurring 40 minutes into the night session. Dumas spun in oil laid down by the Team Modena Aston Martin in the Porsche Curves, sending the Frenchman hard into the barriers. A dejected Dumas walked back to the pits while the session was halted, with the wounded car in pursuit on a tow truck behind.
"I lost control of the car while arriving in Porsche curve," Dumas explained. "The Aston Martin that lost oil just before was stopped a little further. I was very unlucky to be the first coming after the Aston but 'C'est la vie'. The car is quite damaged in the front right. The shock has been quite violent due to the speed in this part of the track."
Before Dumas' off, the car set the seventh best time overall, quickest of the gasoline-powered P1s. The Dome Racing Team S102 Judd clocked the eight quickest time overall, with the No. 5 Team Oreca Matmut Courage-Oreca LC70 Judd and the No. 17 Pescarolo Sport Judd rounding out the top-10.
Sascha Maassen aboard the Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder led the way in P2, as the German Porsche factory driver set a 3:22.441 early in the second session. He and co-drivers John Nielsen and Casper Elgaard were ahead of pole favorites Van Merksteijn Motorsport, in a similarly prepared RS Spyder. The Barazi Epsilon Zytek 07S, which held the quickest time at the end of the first session, wound up third in class provisionally.
The two Corvette Racing C6.Rs paced the LM GT1 category, with the No. 63 entry of Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen setting a 3:49.406. The trio was ahead of the sister No. 64 machine of Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin and Max Papis, who was 1.3 seconds adrift in second. Both Pratt & Miller entries ran quick laps in the night session, since rain could dampen pole runs on Thursday.
"Speedwise, we're faster than we've ever been here, as you can see by our lap times tonight," Magnussen said. "We need a 'friendly' car for a 24-hour race, and I'm sure the Corvette Racing engineers will come up with just the right answer for us."
Larbre Competition's Saleen S7R once again proved mighty as Christophe Bouchut put the American supercar third provisionally, clocking a 3:50.920 late in the first session. The Frenchman's time narrowly edged out the IPB Spartak Racing Lamborghini Murcielago, which was in a surprise fourth position. Both privately entered entries were ahead of the factory Aston Martin Racing DBR9s, which were fifth and sixth in class.
In LM GT2, the Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Jorg Bergmeister, Johannes van Overbeek and Seth Neiman proved to be the quickest, turning a 4:00.106 lap time early in the second session. Defending race winners IMSA Performance Matmut with its Porsche was second, ahead of the quickest Ferrari, the Virgo Motorsport example in third.
All 55 entries took time, with teams able to improve on their best lap times tomorrow. However, with forecasts calling for evening rain showers, the shape of the grid for the twice-around-the-clock classic may look a lot like the one set today.