Le Mans 2014 Final Qualifying Report: Toyota back on front
Before the final two qualifying sessions began there were various news items of interest to report: During the day it was confirmed that Marc Gené would replace Loïc Duval (after his crash on Wednesday) in the newly rebuilt #1 Audi, and his seat in the #38 Jota Zytek would be taken by Oliver Turvey. Craft Bamboo Racing also announced that the structural damage to their #99 Aston Martin Vantage V8 had been too much to repair and that they had to withdraw their car from Le Mans 2014. The good news from them was that Brazilian driver Fernando Rees had only sustained a bruised ankle in that accident, and was otherwise in good health. This withdrawal meant the grid for the Le Mans 24 Hours 2014 was reduced to 54 cars, with five of those yet to set times before the final qualifying sessions.
Qualifying Session 2
Near perfect conditions greeted the start of Session 2 and nearly all the cars on the grid were queuing at pit exit waiting for the green flag. When the stream did head out onto the circuit there were several cars completing their first timed laps. The Nissan ZEOD RC, the #1 Audi and the #41 Greaves Zytek all got laps in.. The ZEOD pressed on, and with almost ten minutes of the session gone, recorded its first full lap of the circuit, Satoshi Motoyama posting a modest 3:59.953. It was good enough to see the garage 56 entry slot in 41st overall, and he then went on to complete a brief handful of additional laps, creeping up the order to stand 36th on best of 3:57.096 before returning to the pit lane.
The rebuilt #1 Audi didn’t set a time at first but completed a series of out-in laps as the new car was tested by the Audi team. No such issues affected the #41, with James Winslow posting a 3:44.293 to slot in among the tail-enders in P2.
Overall there were few cars setting improvements on their Wednesday laps, at this time although Paul-Loup Chatin moved the #36 Signatech Alpine through to the top of the times in LMP2; his 3:38.768 being seven thousandths quicker than Pla’s best from the night before.
In GTE, however, the story was more movement up and down the timesheets, and a number of drivers were finding a few tenths here and there, including another quick lap from Nicki Thiim, slotting the #95 Aston Martin into third in GTE-Am. Other improvers in Am included the #66 JMW Ferrari, the #79 Prospeed Competition Porsche and the #98 Aston Martin. During the first forty minutes there was less movement in Pro, however, with only two cars clocking quicker times than on Wednesday – the #74 Corvette moving up to fourth, and the RAM Racing #52 Ferrari up to sixth.
The first red flag of the evening came with forty-five minutes completed, when James Calado went off the track in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari, near the middle of the Porsche Curves. James was sent off to the Medical Centre for a check-up but the car looked in a bad way.
The session resumed with exactly fifty minutes to go, with two-thirds of the grid returning immediately to the track, including the ZEOD and the #1 Audi and the #76 Porsche – the IMSA Performance Porsche that had still yet to set a time. In LMP1 there were some immediate improvements on the evening, but nothing that challenged the standing order from Wednesday. In LMP2 the changes were more significant, with Nathanaël Berthon now quickest in class with a 3:38.684 for the Murphy Prototypes squad.
With 35 minutes still to run there was a nasty spin for Lucas Di Grassi in the #1 Audi on his out-lap, catching the front of the new chassis hard along the barriers at Indianapolis. He managed to get the damaged car moving again, and began a slow return to the pitlane. Elsewhere the #79 Prospeed Porsche rear-ended the tyre wall on the run up towards the Dunlop Chicane, sustaining significant damage.
That was being cleared away as the #1 Audi trundled through the Porsche Curves, smoke billowing from the front wheel arches as the damaged bodywork fouled on the tyres. As he neared the entrance to the pitlane, Di Grassi was being caught by a number of cars at speed. One of those was Leo Roussel in the #29 Pegasus Racing Morgan Nissan. As the blue car approached the rear of the slow-moving Audi, Di Grassi started heading to the right, as if to align on the entrance to the pitlane, but then moved briefly to the left. Roussel was surprised, and was forced over further to the left to avoid the Audi, and on to the grass. Out of control, the Morgan slewed to the right, across the front of the Audi, and slammed heavily into the concrete wall opposite.
The red flags flew once more before leaving 15 minutes racing left in the stop-start session under green. It was enough for most cars to complete a couple of flyers and the first from Timo Bernhard was also a new quickest overall, posting a 3:22.908 to enhance the Porsche #20’s grip on provisional pole.
Within moments there were further incidents back at the Ford Chicane. A slow-moving works Porsche, the #92, was clipped forcibly across the bows by Raffaele Giammaria in the #60 Ferrari and both ended up in the gravel. The #98 Aston took avoiding action and joined them in the litter. The errant Porsche managed to limp back to the pits.
The waved yellows were timed just right for Nakajima in the #7 Toyota. He had cleared the incident by the time they were flying, and he came through and crossed the line with a 3:22.589 to give provisional pole for Toyota. Olly Jarvis managed an improved time in the #3 Audi as well, and so too Buemi in the #8 Toyota, each before the chequered flag flew. Jarvis rounded off the session with a 3:23.271 to move up a place, but was immediately bettered by Roman Dumas in the #14 Porsche with a 3:22.708, who reclaimed second.
In LMP2, a final flying 3:38.094 from Tristan Gommendy in the #46 Thiriet by TDS Ligier snatched provisional pole from the #48 Murphy Oreca on the last lap. Those closing minutes held no such change in GT, with Gianmaria Bruni’s grip on GTE-Pro remaining secure from his Wednesday best, and the #72 SMP Ferrari similarly incumbent in GTE-Am.
It was a very bitty session with more accidents and yellow and red flags. It did lay hope for better later in the evening though.
Qualifying Session 3
Due to the previous interruption in qualifying the third session was extended by 30 minutes. Starting just as the sun was setting behind the trees. All the action in the opening stages of the session was in the LMP2 class, with Jann Mardenborough going second in the #35 G-Drive Ligier Nissan with a 3:38.184; but then being immediately displaced by Harry Tincknell who improved the #38 Jota Zytek Nissan by around seven seconds to move in to provisional pole. Mardenborough responded to go second with a 3:37.8932.
Sam Bird also made a significant improvement in the #81 AF Corse Ferrari to take provisional pole with a 3:54.665, and was second quickest GT overall.
With 15 minutes gone, Kazuki Nakajima improved his own provisional pole time to 3:21.789 in the #7 Toyota. Moments later, Romain Dumas also improved his time but stayed second on 3:22.146 in the #14 Porsche 919.
With 20 minutes gone, the #91 Porsche 991 RSR of Patrick Pilet slowed suddenly along the start/finish straight and ground to a halt at the end of the pitlane. After an assessment, the car was instructed to be pushed into Parc Ferme and would play no further part in qualifying. The Frenchman was soon joined in the early bath club by Alvaro Parente, who lost the #52 RAM Racing LM GTE-Pro Ferrari under braking in the Ford chicane and hit the tyre barrier with enough speed to end its participation. The recovery squad was very quickly on the scene and the yellows were withdrawn just a couple of minutes later.
As the session moved into its final two hours, Tristan Gommendy reclaimed provisional pole in LMP2 when he beat Tincknell’s time by a few hundredths in the #46 Thiriet Ligier HPD. Matthias Beche, meanwhile, had closed the gap to the factory cars to below four seconds in the #12 Rebellion R-One, but was still almost eight seconds off pole.
Pedro Lamy improved to second in GTE-Am in the #98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, but was still more than a second off Bird’s time.
Things were still fluid in LMP2 after 40 minutes, with Nelson Panciatici taking fourth in the #36 Alpine Nissan, while both Nathaniel Berthon in the Murphy Oreca and Olivier Pla in the #26 G-Drive Morgan also improved their times in fifth and sixth. Ho Pin Tung, however, was having less success – entering the pits after slowing in the Porsche Curves and having taken more than six minutes to complete the final sector in the #33 Team Asia Ligier HPD.
A further improvement for Lamy reduced the advantage of the GTE-Am provisional pole-sitting Ferrari to just under a second, but Gianluca Roda found himself spinning into the Dunlop gravel unaided; fortunately, not deep enough that he couldn’t be quickly recovered.
Meanwhile, confirmation came through that James Calado had been taken to the local hospital for further checks, having received quite a clout to the head during his earlier shunt. The ACO gave special dispensation for Calado to be replaced by Pierre Kaffer – who could do his night-laps in the #51 or #60 cars – and for the chassis to be replaced. It was a similar situation over at ProSpeed, with the damaged #79 needing replacement and Bret Curtis in hospital for checks.
At the half-way point, more than half of the (surviving) field was in the pits and things had settled down considerably. Five minutes later, however, Lucas Ordóñez took advantage of the clearer track to set the Nissan ZEOD’s best lap so far; a 3:50.185 taking the Garage 56 entry to 27th overall.
Things then settled down on track, as drivers completed the obligatory night racing laps and those trying for pole waited for the track to clear. But the dash for pole failed to materialize as ten minutes before the end, first Simon Dolan had a spin at the Ford Chicane, and then Karun Chandhok had a bigger off in the #48 Murphy Oreca at Indianapolis and ended its day against the tyre wall. The Indian driver was okay, but the ensuing Slow Zone would last for the rest of the session, meaning no further improvements to anybody’s times.
So the pole positions would go to the #7 Toyota TS040, the #46 Thiriet by TDS Ligier Nisssan, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari and the #81 AF Corse Ferrari. It was a bit of an anticlimax for the crowd who had been expecting a shoot out for pole, but it leaves lots of questions still to be answered on Saturday and Sunday at Le Mans.
Words & phots by Dailysportscar.