(Credit: Phil Allaway)

Porsche Claims Le Mans Overall Pole, Ford Sweeps GTE-Pro Front Row

At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there are three two-hour qualifying sessions over two days that helps to set the field for the 24-hour classic.  The timer for the sessions go on regardless of conditions.  Normally, the final session is when you see the fastest times.  That was not the case this year.

Wednesday night’s first qualifying session turned out to be the only session run in the dry.  As a result, most of the times that set the grid were set here.

The second session started at 7 p.m. local time on Thursday in the dry, but with threatening skies.  All of the quick times were set in the first 15 or so minutes of the session before rain began falling on part of the course.  Teams did venture out on course, but had to deal with a wet first portion of the lap, then dry track from the Mulsanne Straight all the way to the beginning of the Porsche Curves.

The final session was held in full wet conditions.  The original thought was that it was going to dry out in the final 20 minutes.  That didn’t happen.

A downpour early on caused a red flag after a couple of incidents.  Risi Competizione‘s Matteo Malucelli wiped out on the pit straight after hydroplaning.  Formula Racing‘s No. 60 Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 also spun.  The red flag did see an interesting moment when former Formula One and sports car racer Yannick Dalmas nearly spun out the Audi R8 Safety Car after hitting standing water.

On Wednesday, Porsche’s Neel Jani lapped the 8.469 mile circuit in a time of three minutes, 19.733 seconds (152.646 mph).  That lap, turned in relatively early in the first session, stood up to the best in the world to claim the overall pole for Porsche’s No. 2 919 Hybrid.  The No. 1 Porsche, shared by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber, was nearly a half-second behind in second.

The Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050’s will share row No. 2 with Stéphane Sarrazin turning in a lap just over one second off the pace of Jani.  Sarrazin will share with F1 alum Kamui Kobayashi and former INDYCAR driver Mike Conway.  The No. 5 of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima will start fourth.  Audi claimed row No. 3 with the No. 7 R18 e-tron quattro of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoit Tréluyer in fifth, three seconds off of pole.  The No. 8 Audi is sixth.

Rebellion Racing‘s No. 13 R-One-AER, shared by Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and 19-year old Mathéo Tuscher was quickest in the privateer P1 class with a lap of 3:26.586 (147.582 mph).  Rebellion’s No. 12 was eight-tenths of a second slower. The No. 4 ByKolles Racing Team entry had a fire on Wednesday afternoon while Pierre Kaffer was driving during the free practice session and missed the first round of qualifying.  They set a time at the beginning of the second session, but that time was nearly seven seconds off of the Rebellion’s pace.

In P2, Rene Rast set a lap of 3:36.605 (140.756 mph) to take the class pole in the No. 26 G-Drive Racing ORECA 05-Nissan run by Jota Sport.  Rast will share with Roman Rusinov and former Caterham driver Will Stevens.  Rast’s lap was a half-second faster than the No. 35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine A460 (a rebadged ORECA 05) shared by David Cheng, Nelson Panciatici and Ho-Pin Tung.  Signatech Alpine‘s No. 36 for Nicolas Lapierre, Stéphane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes was third quickest.

In the IMSA contingent, Blancpain GT Series regular Laurens Vanthoor set the fifth fastest time in the No. 49 Ligier JS P2-Honda that he will share with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regulars Oswaldo Negri, Jr. and John Pew.  Note that this is the same chassis that Tequila Patron ESM won both Daytona and Sebring with earlier this year.  Vanthoor was also very quick in the wet on Thursday.  With a 60 percent chance of rain on Saturday, that could be key.

Speaking of Tequila Patron ESM, their two entries are running with the black and white colors of Paul Mitchell at Le Mans because it is illegal in France to advertise alcohol on television or on billboards.  It’s arguable that sponsoring race cars would qualify as both.  The No. 31 entry shared by Ryan Dalziel, Chris Cumming and Pipo Derani was a half-second off of Vanthoor in sixth (15th overall), while the No. 30 of team owner Scott Sharp, Ed Brown and Johannes van Overbeek was 15th in class.  Finally, the Murphy Prototypes No. 48 ORECA 03R-Nissan is racing in cooperation with Riley Motorsports.  The team, running one of six open-top P2 entries, was 18th in class with the trio of Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Marc Goossens.

GTE-Pro saw the Fords dominate the show. Aided by a performance balance ruling after the Le Mans Test Day that resulted in a weight cut, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT’s earned four of the top 5 starting spots in class.  Interestingly enough, it was the American entries that were fastest of all.

IMSA-regular Dirk Müller turned in a lap at 3:51.185 (131.879 mph) to take the class pole in the No. 68 Ford GT that he will share with regular teammate Joey Hand and INDYCAR regular Sébastien Bourdais (Note: The No. 68 that Müller set pole in is the same car pictured above from Daytona).  This was 3.743 seconds faster than Aston Martin Racing‘s pole time from last year and nearly five seconds faster than the best Ford lap during the Le Mans Test Day on Jun. 5.

Müller beat teammate Ryan Briscoe in the No. 69 Ford GT by three-tenths of a second. Briscoe will be sharing with full-time teammate Richard Westbrook and INDYCAR regular Scott Dixon.  AF Corse‘s Gianmaria Bruni prevented a Ford podium sweep by putting his No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE third in class.  The WEC Ford GT’s were fourth and fifth quickest, with the No. 67 ahead of the No. 66.

The pace of the Fords has definitely raised some eyebrows.  SportsCar365.com’s John Dagys reported on Thursday that ACO Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil is not ruling out additional Balance of Performance rule changes for the GTE-Pro class ahead of the race.  Such a move would likely be considered controversial since teams would only have the 45-minute warm-up session on Saturday morning to see what any changes would do to the car (there is no WEC track activity on Friday).

Risi Competizone’s No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE was seventh with the trio of Malucelli, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander driving.  The factory Porsches, running in their only race of the year, were eighth and ninth.  The Corvette Racing C7.R’s rung up the rear in 13th and 14th.

GTE-Am saw Rob Bell win the class pole Wednesday night for Singapore-based Clearwater Racing with a lap of 3:56.827 (128.737 mph) in his Ferrari 458 Italia GT2.  The lap was three-tenths of a second faster than Aston Martin Racing’s No. 98 of Pedro Lamy, Paul Dalla Lana and Mathias Lauda.  In a rarity, Patrick Long improved his time from Wednesday in session No. 2 and moved up from eighth to third in class in the No. 88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR that he shares with Khaled Al-Qubaisi and David Heinemeier Hansson with a lap of 3:57.513.

Other IMSA notables in GTE-Am include current GT-Daytona co-points leader Christina Nielsen, who will start seventh in class in the No. 60 Ferrari for Formula Racing with Mikkel Mac and Johnny Laursen.  Scuderia Corsa‘s No. 62 Ferrari for Townsend Bell, Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler is ninth in class and the Proton Competition/Alex Job Racing No. 89 Porsche for Leh Keen, Cooper MacNeil and Marc Miller is tenth in class.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is scheduled to go green at 9 a.m. on Saturday.  Coverage will be split between FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Sports GO.  The whole race will stream on FOX Sports GO, but certain sections will be exclusive to the streaming service.  Check with your internet service and/or programming provider for availability.  A full TV schedule for the race, including a breakdown of when the race will be on each channel can be found in the TV Schedule tab at the top of the screen.

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Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

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