2009 Le Mans 24 Hours Qualifying Report

James BroomheadAnalyst IJune 11, 2009

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15:  The Team Peugeot 908 car of Nicolas Minassian of France, Jacques Villeneuve of Canada and Marc Gene of Spain drives on its way to finishing in second place during the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 15, 2008 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)


It was a tale of two late session laps as the competitive racing got underway ahead of the 77th Le Mans 24 Hours, to be contested over the coming weekend.

Following a change to the traditional timetable of the classic endurance race a six-hour free practice session replaced the normal four hours of qualifications on the Wednesday night, leaving all the grid to be decided by a pair of two-hour sessions on Thursday night.

The build up to the session was full of the politics and mind games that we have become accustomed to between the two big names of modern sportscar racing—Peugeot and Audi.

While the two had got the shouting match underway with Peugeot lanunching a protest over the legality of the new Audi R15's bodywork (a protest that was thrown out the morning before qualifying) it was the normal debate as to who was going for pole that soon became the talking point.

Many teams seemed determined to stick to their strict set-up and analysis programmes ahead of the main race, several teams admitting to not have any sets of the soft compound qualifying tyres at all, let alone not wanting to use them.

The opening two hours session, scheduled from 7-9pm local time was delayed for nearly half an hour, owing to the need to carry out barrier repairs after an accident in the preceding session of the Formula Le Mans support race.

However, when the session eventally got underway it the was the diesel Peugeot 908s that immediately had the upper hand with the three factory cars and the lone Henri Pescarolo run car dominating the top of the time sheets.

However, as the clock ticked to zero and the chequered flag was displayed, Peugeot again found themselves out maneuvered by their Audi rivals as perfect timing left the lead No. 1 R15, in the hands of Allan McNish with a rapidly clearing track as most cars pulled into the pits.

Devoid of traffic to negotiate there was literally nothing in the Scott's way to stop him from claiming the provisional pole, and claim it he did, lapping the eight-mile long Circuit de la Sarthe in 3minutes 23seconds, over a second clear of the second placed No. 8 Peugeot.

After a shortened, thanks to the late start, break hostilities recommenced in the gathering darkness of a French summer night. For most of the session all was quiet, but as the last half an hour of the session drew in the lead cars started to post faster and faster times.

Ex-F1 and sometime rally driver Stephane Sarrazin led the charge in the No. 8 Peugeot he shares with Franck Montagny and Sebastien Bourdais. Twice commentators reported fastest sector times for the 908, making him set to topple McNich for pole.

However, twice his path was blocked, firstly by a privateer Kolles' Audi through the Porsche curves then, on a separate lap, through the Indianapolis corner by Tom Kristensen, driving the very car he was trying to overhaul for top spot.

Just as it looked as if time and tactics had evaded them Peugeot and Sarrazin snatched pole with only ten minutes remaining, lapping nearly eight-tenths under McNish's marker that remained unmoved during the second session, and although other Audi's and Peugeot's tried to better the time it is the No. 8 car, scheduled to be started by Montagny, that will lead the field to the green flag.

Major incidents were few, the only one of note being reports that the No. 007 P1 Aston Martin Lola had parted company with a wheel after contact with a barrier, but only after the car had done enough to be classified as the fastest petrol powered car, some four seconds off of overall pole pace.

In the other classes the two Porsche RS Spyders battled for P2 supremacy, with the Essex car beating the Japanese NAVI Team Goh entry by less than a tenth, while being clear of the next best car in class (the Speedy Racing Lola Judd) by a full four seconds.

In a similarly predictable fashion the works Corvettes, with the No. 63 O'Connell/Magnussen/Garcia car leading its team mate, again by half a second with the Jetalliance Aston being the best of the rest, although nearly two seconds off of the class pole time.

GT1 qualifying again saw hard times for the JLOC Lamborghini Murcielago, which after losing most of Wednesday's practice with a driveshaft problem was again plagued by technical troubles, leaving it to set the slowest overall time at 4minutes 21seconds, and the only car that could fall foul of a rule where a car has to qualify within 125 percent of the overall pole time, falling four seconds beyond the cut off point.

However, it is doubtful the ACO will enforce the rule, so expect the car roll to off on Saturday, albeit at the rear of the field.

The main surprise, in my eyes at least, was the capture of the GT2 pole by the Flying Lizard Motorsport Porsche in the hands of Grand-Am racer Darren Law, pipping the works driver laden Felbermayr-Proton car by three-hundredths of a second ahead of the first Ferrari, the red Risi car of Mika Salo, Jamie Melo, and Pierre Kaffer.

The teams, or the drivers at least, have a day off tomorrow, before an early morning warm-up on Saturday before the race starts at 3pm local time.