Toyota Gazoo Racing’s No.8 Toyota TS050 HYBRID will start the 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours from pole position as Kazuki Nakajima set the fastest time in the final qualifying session, bettering his Q1 flyer with a blistering 3m15.377s.
“It was a nice run without any traffic, and the car was very good,” Nakajima told Radio Le Mans after the session. “I’m quite happy with the result, but more importantly the car was good. We did a lot of progression for the race. We feel ready.”
The time, which came at the start of the third and final qualifying session, means that he and teammates Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso will line up at the head of the field for the race. It wasn’t as quick as last year’s record-shattering 3m14.791s, but it was still a lap record for the current configuration of the Circuit de la Sarthe, which is marginally different in distance this year.
Interestingly, the time was exactly two seconds faster than the sister No.7 TS050 HYBRID, which qualified second and didn’t improve during qualifying sessions two or three. Kamui Kobayashi’s tour from the first session proved enough to secure a front-row lockout for the Japanese marque, which will hope to bookend its dominant week with its first Le Mans victory on Sunday.
Behind them, the LMP1 privateers, which throughout the running looked to have a chance to mix in with the Toyotas on raw pace, failed to challenge the TS050 HYBRIDs when the conditions were at their peak.
Both Rebellion Racing R-13s improved in session three, and will start in formation on the second row of the grid, but when the rain came with an hour and 20 minutes to run, they were denied a chance to climb up the order further with the final session winding down.
The best time from the two Gibson-powered Rebellions was initially a 3m18.252s set by Frenchman Thomas Laurent, which in the end was just eight tenths off the second Toyota, but 2.8s back from the pole-sitter. But after the session the time was deleted, and the No. 3 Rebellion was demoted to fifth, promoting the No. 1 sister Rebellion to third with a 3m19.449s from Bruno Senna. A reason was not immediately given.
Just outside the top three was the best of the SMP Racing BR1 AERs. The No.17 finished up with a 3m19.483s set by Stephane Sarrazin in qualifying 1, enough to ensure the team ended up with a car quicker than DragonSpeed’s No.10 BR1 Gibson, which will start the race from sixth.
Further back, qualifying 3 was another productive session for the CEFC TRSM Ginetta G60-LT-P1s, which improved on their qualifying 2 times, the better of the two ahead of all the LMP2 runners. The fastest TRSM driver was Oliver Rowland in the No.6, who posted a respectable 3m23.757s to get within 1.3 seconds of the ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 ahead in eighth.
Due to multiple niggles of various severity, the two G60s didn’t complete as many laps as the team would have hoped for prior to qualifying. But with 47 laps completed by the No.6 and 40 laps set by the No.5, vital data was still gathered.
The Dunlop-shod TDS Racing ORECA 07 Gibson was due to start at the head of the field with ex-Audi LMP1 driver and former Le Mans winner Loic Duval reeling off a rapid 3m24.816s to snatch the headlines from the IDEC Sport team (and its tire supplier Michelin), which was demoted to second in class as a result.
But Duval’s time was eventually deleted due to the car not stopping “at the scrutineering light for weighing during Qualifying Practice 3,” and IDEC Sport ended up taking pole for ORECA and Michelin, thanks to Paul Loup Chatin’s 3m24.842s.
“We’re so happy at IDEC Sport; the team has done an amazing job to score pole in Le Mans. The team has worked in a magnificent way. It means a lot, but this is just the beginning,” Chatin’s teammate Memo Rojas said.
Promoted to second was the DragonSpeed ORECA 07 Gibson, with a 3m24.883s set by Nathanel Berthon. It is set to start ahead of the No. 26 G-Drive 07 Gibson, and penalized No. 28 TDS to make it an ORECA 1-2-3-4.
This year’s qualifying has shown that the LMP2 field is not as divided between the three chassis suppliers as it was in 2017, though a Ligier JS P217 or Dallara P217 never looked capable of producing a class-topping lap.
Best of the other chassis ended up fifth as Will Stevens in Panis Barthez Competition’s JS P217 got the better of United Autosports’ No. 22’s best efforts in the final session to become the fastest Ligier.
Unfortunately for Dallara, its highest qualified P217 will start 12th.
Porsche, which is unable to fight for an overall win this year, will still head into the weekend’s race having made the headlines with its GTE Pro cars proving to be the fastest in the field, the WEC retro-liveried 911 RSRs finishing 1-2.
In his first run at Le Mans with Porsche, Gianmaria Bruni’s spectacular record-breaking 3m47.504s from Wednesday night was unbeatable, stealing the show in the ‘Rothmans’ liveried No.91 machine to go 1.5 seconds faster than the other 16 cars.
Second in the class was the No.92, which was less than a tenth faster than the best of the Fords (the No.66), which ended up third.
Making it three marques in the top four was Alessandro Pier Guidi in the No.51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE EVO. The Italian’s time came in the final session, putting a cat amongst the pigeons.
The other three factories were unable to get within 2.5 seconds of the pole time. Best of the rest was the No.63 Corvette Racing C7.R, after multiple improvements by Antonio Garcia this evening put the car just inside the top 10 in ninth.
BMW and Aston were even worse off — the MTEK M8s will start 12th and 13th, and the Aston Martin Racing Vantages a lowly 16th and 17th in the standings, behind four and nine of the GTE Am front-runners, respectively.
Being so far off the pace will come as a worry, though this level of disparity has the potential to prompt a post-qualifying Balance of Performance adjustment to put BMW and Aston’s new cars in with a chance to fight on pace. If the true pace was being shown by the slower marques, then at this point, any adjustment will come as a positive for both the teams and fans in the stands.
The history books tell us, though, that circumstances like this shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value.
Porsche took the honors in GTE Am too, as the No. 88 Dempsey Proton 911 RSR finished with a 3m50.728s set by Matteo Cairoli.
In the end it was a Porsche 1-2-3, with Gulf Racing second, ahead of the sister No.88 Dempsey Proton Porsche in third.
The 86th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours is set to get underway at 15:00 local time(9 a.m. ET) on Saturday afternoon.