The first of the three qualifying sessions at Le Mans this year was rather dramatic, despite being dry. The No. 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 HYBRID was fastest after two hours of running, with a 3m17.161s from Jose Maria Lopez.
It wasn’t a clean run for the No. 7 crew, though, as Mike Conway had a sizeable incident at the Ford Chicane with 46 minutes remaining that left Toyota mechanics scrambling.
The Briton collided with the No. 31 DragonSpeed ORECA 07 Gibson of Roberto Gonzalez, the Mexican pulling out in front of the Toyota on the entry to the first left after a spin. This caused the Toyota to drive over the front end of the ORECA, sending Conway into the air. It damaged the front-end of both cars, and the side of the Toyota.
“I went into the first chicane, saw the double yellow, I couldn’t see anyone, came into the left, saw the headlights but it was too late,” said Conway. “There’s a lot of damage. I just didn’t see him. I’m fine, just sorry for the crew they have more work to do.”
Thankfully, the mechanics were able to get the car ready to rejoin the session after just 20 minutes in the garage. The No. 31 also made it back out.
Behind the No. 17, the SMP Racing BR1 managed a stunning 3m17.633s from Egor Orudzhev. That marked considerable progress from the Russian squad, its best time from last year’s Qualifying having been almost 2.0s slower.
The top three was completed by the No. 3 Rebellion R-13, its time 2.4s off the provisional pole time set by Thomas Laurent.
Toyota’s No.8 car? Well surprisingly, it ended up fourth, a 3m19.632s from Fernando Alonso its best time – not that the Japanese marque will worry, with the pace of the TS050 HYBRID a known quantity at this point.
Fifth was the No. 10 DragonSpeed BR1, which only completed a handful of laps in the session after Henrik Hedman stopped out on track with a gearbox issue early on. The No. 1 Rebellion ended up sixth.
In LMP2, the aforementioned No. 31 DragonSpeed ORECA led the way with a 3m26.804s before the incident with the No. 7 Toyota. Pastor Maldonado set the time, which didn’t come close to the 3m24.842s pole time from the No.48 IDEC ORECA last year.
The Signatech Alpine slotted in second in the class, with the No. 22 United Autosports Ligier third. The time by Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 22 will inject a bit of confidence into the Ligier camp, which is aiming to fight for the win.
The No. 48 IDEC Sport ORECA ended up fourth, with the No. 30 Duqiene Engineering 07 Gibson fifth.
On the tire front, it was a good night for Michelin, the top five all using French rubber. Dunlop’s fastest customer team was the No. 28 TDS Racing ORECA, which ended up sixth with a 3m28.840s.
GTE Pro was headed by the No. 67 Ford GT after Harry Tincknell reeled off a 3m49.530s in the session to put the crew less than 0.1s clear of the No. 93 Porsche that ended up second. The No. 97 Aston Martin made it three marques in the top three after a 3m50.037s.
“That was a great session, we’re happy with our strategy,” said Tincknell. “We’re keeping it chilled, we’re in high spirits and confident. I had time to go for it at the end. Always good to put it on provisional pole. An excellent first day, but a long way to go yet.”
It was tight at the top in Pro, the top six all within a second, the No. 91, 94, and 92 Porsches making up the remaining spots in the top six respectively.
At the back of the pack in Pro was the No. 66 Ford, which was in the wars; Olivier Pla having an off at the Porsche Curves that damaged the front and rear of the car. Corvette also hit trouble in the session, the No. 64 losing valuable track time after Oliver Gavin suffered a puncture under braking into the first Ford Chicane.
GTE Am was a Porsche 1-2-3, the No. 88 Dempsey Proton 911 RSR pacing the field thanks to a 3m52.454s from Matteo Cairoli. The No. 56 Project 1 Porsche, which leads the Am standings in the FIA WEC, finished the night second ahead of the No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche, which took third.
Best of the rest was the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage with a 3m50.037s; a strong showing from the ageing Vantage ahead of what is expected to be its final Le Mans.
The only car that didn’t make it out is the No. 99 Proton Porsche, which had a big off in Free Practice. As it stands it’s not clear whether or not the car will be repaired in time to qualify.
There are two more qualifying sessions to come tomorrow at Le Mans, but with rain on the forecast, the times set tonight could well prove to be enough to determine the grid.