The official Audi and Peugeot statements on tonight's qualifying session for the Le Mans 24 Hours said that the two rival teams were going to work on race settings rather than taking part in a competition for the pole position.
However, Stephane Sarrazin drove three quick qualifying-style laps just before the session ended at midnight, and his efforts paid off for the French manufacturer, with the pole position for Peugeot's home race.
Sarrazin set two quick lap times in his #8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP late in the second session, getting within seven hundredths of the time set by the team's archrivals -- in this case Allan McNish, in an Audi R15 TDI. However, each time he encountered traffic late in the lap, and was not quite able to match the Scot's lap time.
"We set up the car the for the race, that was our target," Sarrazin claimed after qualifying. "We did a quick time at the end race, but the pole was not our goal."
However, in spite of Peugeot's stated goal to ignore the race for pole, the team sent Sarrazin out on soft tires, which only last for two qualifying laps (plus the out and in laps) not only once, but twice. After Sarrazin had come close but fallen slightly short, the team brought him in, put a second set of soft tires on, and sent him back out. Another fast lap, without traffic this time, and Sarrazin had claimed the pole position from McNish by a margin of 0.762 seconds.
Testing soft tires for the race? Maybe. But after one two-lap stint the wear on those tires was already quite apparent, and maybe that second stint wasn't really required ... unless you wanted to win the pole position, that is.
McNish, for his part, had done his quick lap, also on soft tires, at the very end of the first two-hour qualifying session, just as the sun was beginning to set. The Audi team swapped on new tires for the Scot, and then sent him out with little more than three and a half minutes left in the session. It was touch and go, but McNish just barely made it to the finish line to start his flying lap before the chequered flag flew to end the session.
Having started the lap from a one-second deficit to Sarrazin, McNish drove a stonking qualifier in the #1 Audi R15, largely free of traffic, leapfrogging the Peugeot with a time of 3:23.650.
"I don't know if that time will hold for pole," he mused during the break between the sessions -- and apparently prescient. "I love the circuit, I enjoyed the lap. When you build the lap from the first corner, you see the change. The big time change is the Porsche Curves at the end. Yesterday being a bit of a washout, we still have to make the adjustments for the race. It will be fun anyway for the race. Certainly we have a much better raceable car than the R10 of last year."
In the second session, Audi focused on testing tires and working on race settings, with neither the #1 nor #3 Audis setting times likely to threaten pole position. Marco Werner, in the #2 car, did drive a quick lap in the closing minutes of the second session, but was unable to improve from his sixth position.
The #9 and #7 Peugeots were significantly off the pace, with Nicolas Minassian hustling the former into third grid position, 1.210 seconds behind Sarrazin's pole position. The #9, though, ended the session languishing in fifth place, behind not only its teammates and McNish's Audi, but also Team Pescarolo's customer Peugeot.
That customer Peugeot in fourth? That was the legendary Pescarolo magic dust doing its work, combined with some slick driving by Jean-Christophe Boullion, giving the ubiquitous French privateer its first second-row starting position in a long time.
The other two factory Audis finished the session sixth and seventh, between two and three-and-a-half seconds adrift of their teammate McNish's fastest lap time.
The Lola-Aston Martins were the fastest of the petrol-powered cars; the ACO rule changes to equalize the diesel performance with that of the petrol-engined cars had done its job, bringing Stefan Mucke in the team's lead car, the #007, within 4.292 seconds of Sarrazin's pole, well down from last year's 6.645 seconds. Jan Charouz did spin off the track in the dying minutes of the session, though without any substantial damage to the car.
While Anthony Davidson was able to bring the #008 to within 0.524 seconds of its sister car, the team's third entry, the #009, was mired near the bottom of the P1 timesheets, 17th out of 20 cars in class. On the other hand, the independent Spedy Racing Team Sebah entry, with a largely identical Lola B08/60-Aston Martin was able to nip on the heels of the #008.
In the P2 class, it had looked suspiciously like a Porsche battle after yesterday's practice, and that was exactly the result in qualifying today.
In the fight between the two Porsche RS Spyders, it was Essex Racing taking first in class and twentieth overall, with a time of 1:37.720. Sascha Maassen ran some quick laps for the NAVI Team Goh, and the team's final qualifying time was just 0.082 seconds slower than that of their Porsche rivals.
Speedy Racing Team Sebah not only impressed in P1, but also took third place (and 22nd overall) on the P2 grid, with their Lola B09/80-Judd clocking a time of 3:41.724, 3.922 seconds off the pace of Team Essex. Clearly the RS Spyders, in spite of not having had any development in 2009, are still the class of the P2 field.
At the front, though, it should be very much an even Peugeot-Audi battle once the race starts on Saturday afternoon. The Germans have closed down the gap: in 2008 McNish -- the fastest of the Audis -- was 5.332 seconds behind Sarrazin's pole position time, and that gap is now down to 0.762 seconds. Reliability, tire wear, strategy, and driver skill will now likely be the key factors in determining this year's winner. The teams are evenly matched, and neither one will be able to run away and hide.