Damp and wet weather made for slow and unpredictable lap times during the six-hour night practice session at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The rookie drivers had to meet minimum practice lap requirements (10 laps in daylight and three more in the dark), but otherwise the track was relatively quiet for much of the session. The wet weather, combined with the lack of test days preceding the race week, made for a challenging session for many.
Allan McNish set the fastest time of the session in the #1 Audi R15 TDI at 3:30.708, more than eleven seconds off last year's LM P1 pole position time at Circuit de la Sarthe. However, even McNish's time was set while the track was still damp, as it never quite dried before the rain returned once again. The #2 Audi, with the all-German driving team, was second, just 0.054 seconds adrift of its sister car.
While the ultimate speeds of the various competitors have yet to be seen -- we need to await a dry track and a qualifying session for that -- it's clear that Peugeot no longer has the kind of edge in raw speed that it held over its German rival last year, when the fastest of the Audi R10s was over five seconds off the Peugeot pole position pace.
Peugeots set the third through fifth fastest times in the session, with the #9 and #8 works cars sandwiching the #16 Pescarolo 908 HDi FAP, in a promising performance for the factory-supported Pescarolo Peugeot, driven by Jean-Christophe Bouillon, Simon Pagenaud and Benoit Treluyer.
The P1 Lola Aston Martins looked good, but did not appear to quite have the pace of the Audis and the Peugeots. However, their pace was significantly improved from 2008, and the team could yet apply pressure on the front-runners tomorrow night.
The two Team Kolles Audi R10s were a fair distance off the top P1 runners' pace, but admittedly not one of the Kolles drivers had turned a lap at Le Mans before today's wet-weather practice session, so the team may have some opportunity to improve in tomorrow's qualifying.
In the LM GT2 class, the one notable bright light in the drizzling weather was the strong performance of the Snoras Spyker Squadron, as the team clocked the third-fastest time in class during the session.
As expected in the conditions, there were a number of incidents, though none was significant enough to warrant a session stoppage. For the second-consecutive first practice session at Le Mans, the KSM (Kruse Schiller Motorsport) Lola B07/46 Mazda Spider had a nasty shunt.
Hideki Noda flipped the car in last year's first practice and the team spent the rest of the week repairing the car for the race. On this occasion Jean de Pourtales looped the car coming through Dunlop Curve about 7:30, smashing into the barriers and sustaining some heavy left rear bodywork damage.
The car was repaired within a few hours and returned to the track later on with Matthew Marsh driving, the Briton making his prototype debut after racing a Ferrari in GT2 here in 2007.
Before the KSM incident, the first driver to make an unscheduled appointment with the gravel trap was Christijan Albers in the #15 Kolles Audi R10 TDI at Indianapolis, but the car was undamaged and continued.
Several cars had offs, notable among them were Pedro Lamy in the #7 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP who spun at Ford Chicane, and Alexandre Premat, who ran the #3 Audi R15 wide at the Mulsanne Corner in the dying minutes of the session.
Others included the #31 Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder, #66 Jetalliance Racing GMBH Aston Martin DBR9 and the #75 Endurance Asia Team and #80 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs.
Only one car, the #68 JLOC Lamborghini Murcielago, did not get on track this evening after a period of transmission and driveshaft problems. The issue turned out not to be the driveshaft itself but in the system. The team is hoping to secure the part and have the car fixed in time for Thursday's qualifying session, starting at 19:00 local time tomorrow evening.
The #32 Barazi Epsilon and #41 GAC Racing Team Zyteks did not get on track until late in the session. The GAC car had a clutch problem with Barazi Epsilon losing oil pressure at the beginning of the session, brought back to the pit lane on a flatbed. Each set a time but finished down the time sheets, 9th and 12th in the P2 class.