Friday 17 June 2016

24 Hours of Le Mans 2016 - Porsche on pole after weather struck qualifying

Neel Jani secured pole position for Porsche in the 84th running of the 24 hours Le Mans. With rain pouring down in the final two qualifying sessions yesterday evening, the times set on Wednesday decided about tomorrow's starting grid.

Track conditions were mostly dry on Wednesday, except for the first practice session which saw some heavy downpours about one hour into the session. A few red flags and incidents in the first practice session, but non with heavy damage although Bruno Senna, Inez Taittinger and Stéphane Sarrazin hit the barriers and got some bodywork on their cars.

Drama struck for the byKolles team on Wednesday when their CLM P1/01 caught fire on the approach of the first chicane during the first session. It took the team about 48 hours of hard work to get the car back on track, but they managed to get it running early in the first Thursday session. A huge asset by the team, let's hope they'll have more luck in the race.

The first night qualifying session on Wednesday was run in dry conditions, the only session not suffering from (heavy) rainfall over both practice and qualifying days. Little did we know by then that this would be the session which would determine the startgrid for the 24 hours. At the end of the session, Neel Jani put in a 3.19.733 in his #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid, just under half a second faster than Timo Bernhard in the #1 sister car. Both Toyota's set the pace early in the session, and took the second row of the startgrid. The #6 TS050 a second faster that the #5 Toyota.

Lucas Di Grassi was the fastest Audi driver, but had to give in 3 seconds to the pole sitting Porsche. The Audi's never really showed their true pace over the week, so it will be interesting to see if they can match both Porsche and Toyota's pace during the race. In the privateer LMP1 class Rebellion took a logical 1-2 after the tragic incident with the byKolles car. Dominik Kraihamer putting the #13 R-One AER ahead of the #12.

We all expected defending champions KCMG, Alpine, G-Drive and Manor at the top in LMP2 and they all delivered in what was a striking qualifying session. Ultimately Rene Rast scored pole in the class with the orange #26 G-Drive Oreca 05/Nissan, beating Nelson Panciatici in the #35 Baxi Alpine with 0.570 seconds. Nicolas Lapierre was third fastest in the Signatech Alpine A 460, ahead of the #44 Manor Oreca. Laurens Vanthoor had a strong run in the Honda powered Ligier JS P2 of Michael Shank Racing, completing the top 5 on the grid. The KCMG Oreca ultimately dropped back to ninth in class, a bit of a disappointing result.

So far the Oreca05 is dominating the Ligier JSP2's in the LMP2 class in what is announcing itself as a very intense battle over 24 hours. It won't only be Oreca vs Ligier, but don't count out the "good old" Gibson 015S which already showed some good pace and over the years presented itself as very reliable.

Ford - surprisingly - dominated qualifying in GTE-Pro, improving their times from the testday last week with over 5 seconds. After 2 hours, only Dirk Müller was outright fastest in his #68 Ford GT, his 3.51.185 being 0.312 seconds ahead of Ryan Briscoe in the #69.  Gianmaria Bruni was able to squeeze his # 51 Ferrari 488 GTE inbetween the Fords, preventing them from scoring a clean sheet during qualifying. Ford still occupied first, second, fourth and fifth though. The second AF Corse Ferrari #71 was sixth overall. Behind Ford and Ferrari, it was a struggle for Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette to keep up with the pace of the turbo engined Italian and American cars. Makowiecki was "best of the rest" but an impressive 1.9 seconds behind the seventh placed Risi Competizione Ferrari. Corvette, who have set the pace at Le Mans in many past years came in dead last this year, a huge disappoinment for the ambitious Americans.

Signapore based Clearwater racing surprisingly took pole in the GTE-Am class, Rob Bell being fastest of the pack in a 3.56.827. The speed difference between Bell and the other drivers of the #61 Ferrari was however pretty big, which might have some effect on their chances to defend pole position in the race. All kudo's to Bell though, who at some point even managed to lap faster than some of the Pro entry cars. Aston Martin was up to pace in the Am class, Pedro Lamy qualifying the #98 Vantage in second place, 0.371 behind Rob Bell. The #98 crew is out on a mission this year after losing a certain win last year when Dalla Lana got off at the Ford chicane and crashed into the tyre wall. The #88 Abu Dhabi Porsche of Patrick Long was third fastest, outpacing both AF Corse Ferrari's.

After the times set by the Ford GT's, the paddock was buzzin' with rumours about "sandbagging" by the blue oval team. After the test day Ford got an extra Balance of Performance, resulting in the domination they showed on Wednesday. Today the ACO's technical commission announced there will be a new BoP adjustment before the race. The Ford GT's will get a weight adjustment of 10 kg and have their boost pressure removed from 4200 to 7000 rpm. The Ferrari's also get "penalized" for their performance in practice, receiving an extra 25 kg (but 4 litres extra fuel capacity). Aston Martin, Porsche and Corvette got also a new BoP, mainly consisting of less restricted air collectors and a larger fuel capacity.

The countdown to the race now really has started, the green flag being waved at 15.00h tomorrow afternoon. With the unpredictable weather conditions, several teams who didn't have their desired running time in practice and qualifying and technical gremlins showing up everywhere, we will be in for a classic edition. This won't be a succession of 24 hour-long sprintraces as we saw in the past years, but a survival of the fittest. There will be fierce competition in all classes, expect a thrilling 24 hours where nothing will be taken for granted ... and maybe we'll see a few surprises on the podium on Sunday ... 

Kristof Vermeulen.