Toyota announced a strong statement of intent during qualifying on Thursday evening, as they locked out the front row of the grid and set a new circuit lap time in the process of claiming pole position. Porsche had to settle for the second row as the Japanese manufacturer grabbed the Le Mans 2017 headlines.
The first qualifying session on Thursday evening was curtailed following an accident by the Eurasia Motorsport Ligier, that caused damage to the barriers. This meant all eyes were on the second and final qualifying session and the drivers didn’t disappoint in any of the classes. Kamui Kibayashi, at the wheel of the No.7 Toyota, was out early in the session and took full advantage. With a relatively clear track, new tyres & favourable breezes down the straight, the Japanese driver astonished everyone (possibly including himself) setting a new qualifying lap record (13:14.791) by more than two seconds. It was a quite remarkable lap that nobody else was able to get close to throughout the rest of the session. Porsche rallied and improved their times, but the new record was never really under threat as darkness fell at Le Mans.
The new LMP2 cars have already proven to be extremely quick. In fact, they have been clocked faster than the LMP1 cars down parts of the Mulsanne straight. Lack of downforce elsewhere in the circuit means their fastest lap (3:25.549) was more than 10 seconds behind the LMP1 pole. Make no mistake though this is quick and some 7 seconds ahead of the previous LMP2 class record. With so many similar powered cars in LMP2 this class is going to be hugely difficult to predict, and all through qualifying the provisional pole kept changing hands. In the end, the fastest time in the class was set by the No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca, with Alex Lynn getting the best from the car. Not far behind were the No. 25 CEFC Manor TDS Racing Oreca and the No. 38 Jackie Chan Racing Oreca. The Gibson powered Oreca appears to be the car to have this year.
Another close battle for pole took place in the LMGTE Pro class and another qualifying lap record fell in the final session. British driver Darren Turner brought the No. 97 Aston Martin Racing Vantage around in 3:50:837 to claim pole and cue the back slapping in the garage. There has been much criticism of the Balance of Performance regulations in this class, but judging from the qualification alone, they seem to have got most things right. Provisional pole changed a number of times throughout the session, with Ferrari, Corvette and Ford all having a shot at provisional pole. In the end it was the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari that pushed Aston Martin the most with James Calado, making it good evening for the Brits.
Not to be outdone the GTE AM battle was equally close and once again the qualifying lap record fell (3:52:843). This time however, it was the No. 50 Larbre Competition Corvette that took the honours and class pole for the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours. Fernando Rees was the driver to get the best from the Corvette, although he was pushed all the way by the No. 98 Aston Martin and the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari.
As the chequered flag fell to signal the end of the session, all participating cars had set qualifying times less than 4 minutes (another record) indicating that the Le Mans 24 Hours 2017 will probably go down in the history books again once the race gets going this weekend. One not to miss!
Written by Richard Webb
Photography by Dailysportscar