Strategy counts in Le Mans qualifying

Le Mans is unusual among major races in having a total of eight hours of qualifying, spread out over two days-four times the amount for a typical Grand Prix. And Formula One qualifying rules further limit the number of qualifying laps, giving...

Le Mans is unusual among major races in having a total of eight hours of qualifying, spread out over two days-four times the amount for a typical Grand Prix. And Formula One qualifying rules further limit the number of qualifying laps, giving each driver less than forty minutes of track time.

The only other one that could claim to exceed Le Mans' eight-hour figure is the Indianapolis 500, but in that case the drivers actually get very little track time, with the organizers only permitting one car at a time on the track. At Le Mans, the track is always busy during qualifying.

With the amount of track time available, the teams are able to use the qualifying sessions not only to determine grid positions-something that is not critical for a race of endurance, in any case, whether for 24 hours or 500 miles-but also to fine tune their race setups.

Still, the first two sessions, from 7 PM to 9 PM and 10 PM to midnight on Wednesday, saw intense efforts by the teams to set competitive times. The benchmark was set, like the previous year, by Rinaldo "Dindo" Capello in the #2 Audi R8, with the #1 Audi close behind.

Jan Lammers may have set a highly competitive time in the Racing for Holland Dome-Judd, but was disqualified after a fuel sample was analyzed. The cause? It appears that the fuel tank did not get properly cleaned after the previous race, where a slightly different fuel was used.

In the second two sessions on Thursday night, it might come as a surprise that times did not drop rapidly as they do in most other race series' second qualifying day. About two-thirds of the teams did improve, in the end, but often only by fractions of a second over the four-minute lap.

As it turns out, on Thursday, the teams with special, highly tuned, qualifying engines pulled them out, and switched to their race engines.

This dates back to a rule change implemented by the organizers, ACO, before the 1980 event, forbidding teams from changing engines between the final qualifying session and the race. As a result, the teams run their race engines on Thursday, rather than the qualifying ones seen on Wednesday.

As a prime example, Orbit Racing (Porsche 911 GT3 RS) were satisfied with their fifth-in-class qualifying performance on Wednesday, in spite of not breaking out a new set of qualifying tires.

The team subsequently decided to have their drivers spend Thursday focusing on race preparation. A position or two dropped in the course of the night would matter far less in the long hours of the race than a poorly set up car. In the event, it turned out that none of the other LM GT teams managed to better their time, confirming the team's choice.

At the front of the grid, though, there was more action on Thursday, even without qualifying engines. Capello broke the 3:30 mark with a lap of 3:29.905 to claim his second pole in Audi one-two-three, with the #14 Dallara-Jud and Lammers' Dome-Judd close behind.

While Panoz disappointed in qualifying only 9th and 17th, some of the positive surprises of the second session cam from Britain: Mark Blundell in the #27 MG ignored the expected grid positions of the lower LMP675 class, and put the car in an impressive sixth position on the grid.

And further back, the Morgan team showed true grit and determination, squeezing more speed out of the Aero 8 in its debut race, reaching LM GT mid-pack, and outqualifying several Ferraris in the process.

Will the focus on race preparation pay off over pure qualifying efforts? That will be seen starting on Saturday afternoon, through the long night, and into Sunday.

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Series Le Mans
Drivers Jan Lammers , Mark Blundell