Le Mans 24 Hours 2011; Wednesday Practice & Qualifying Update

Finally we got to see the cars out around the circuit. Wednesday saw an initial free practice session followed by a night time 1st qualifying session. Nobody was going to win anything today. They weren’t even going to secure pole, but it was always going to be tense as the drivers got their race faces on and the teams went to work for real.

Everything before this doesn’t really matter now. This is the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Free Practice
During the free practice session, which lasted 4 hours on Wednesday afternoon, most teams rotated their drivers, allowing all the nerves to settle and for the drivers to get a feel of the car. The circuit was still fairly slippery, particularly on the public roads sections, so all of the teams appeared to be taking it steady and building up their pace.

Audi R18

The fastest man out on the Le Mans circuit during this session was Audi’s Mike Rockenfeller in the No 1 car. He managed to top the time charts in the last few moments of the session, just pipping his Peugeot rivals to top spot. During the session the Peugeots looked to have the beating of Audi. Even the Oreca Matmut Peugeot was ahead of the Audis in the time charts early on. But as we know in endurance racing nothing is ever won in the first hour. Peugeot’s pace however was good and they were consistently under the 3½ minute time to complete the famous Le Mans circuit. Audis charge came late as the track rubbered in and at 3 minutes 27 seconds was a whole second quicker than the fastest Peugeot driven by British driver Anthony Davidson.

The British were also showing good speed in the LMP2 class with the experienced team of Strakka Racing quickest in their field. Early on it looked as if the Nissan powered Orecas would dominate but the Honda powered Strakka car came through in the second half of the session, relegating the Nissan powered teams of Oreca Matmut and Signatech to second and third.

Peugeot 908

BMW Motorsport was able to beat of a challenge from the Ferrari 458 of AF Corse and the Felbermayr Proton Porsche to claim top spot in the new GTE Pro category. The Corvettes made a late charge but it was the BMW that held on and were the only car to break the four minute barrier in this category.

The recogniseable Gulf colours of the AMR Middle East Vantage was quick early on in the GTE Am class, closely followed by another great paint job on the Flying Lizard’s Porsche. However it was a late burst by the Ferrari of Krohn Racing that looked the quickest at the end of the session.

Flying Lizard Porsche

Qualifying Session 1
Peugeot’s Stephane Sarrazin secured the provisional pole position for the Le Mans 24 Hours on Wednesday evening, with a fast lap towards the end of the session that relegated the quick runs of Audi to second and third. Although nothing was to be decided in this session all the teams, across all the categories, really attacked the circuit and the times fell accordingly.

Audi dominated most of the session with first Mike Rockenfeller and then Andre Lotterer setting the fastest laps around 3 minutes 27 seconds. Depending on the weather we may well see the pole sitter now setting a 3 minutes 25 second lap. Both Audi and Peugeot look capable of that depending on a good run, no traffic and a dry track.

It was a stop start session, elongated by six minutes after a number of red flags prevented teams putting in quick laps. There had already been two dangerous incidents on the Mulsanne straight as the Kronos and Aston Martin Racing AMR-One both stopped on the track before a really big accident occurred. The Gulf AMR Middle East Aston Martin Vantage had been off and was static on the chicane as Romain Dumas approached at speed in his Audi R18. In the darkness the prone Aston Martin couldn’t be seen and the Audi hit the Aston Martin full on in a T-bone accident. The red flags came out, and fortunately both drivers walked away. Both cars were badly damaged and the mechanics in both pits will have been working through the night.

Aston Martin Racing AMR-One

With minutes left of the session, as midnight approached Sarrazin managed to get in amongst the Audi times and then took the lead by nearly a second. The Audis chose not to respond and left Peugeot to claim the bragging rights on the first day.

Despite curtailing the session with another red flag for crashing at the first corner, the Strakka Racing team remained the fastest of the LMP2 category staying ahead of the Nissan powered teams as they did in the free practice session. Although Nick Leventis walked away from the car there was a lot of damage, so the mechanics will have been working all night again in the Strakka Racing garage.

Gulf AMR Middle East

After only one car broke the 4 minute barrier in the practice session it was perhaps surprising that eight cars managed to do it during the first qualifying session. However the order didn’t change and it was the No. 56 BMW Motorsport M3 that took the honours ahead of the Ferrari 458 of AF Corse. This is potentially the closest of all the categories to call.

Finally in the GTE AM class following the accident involving the Aston Martin it was the Porsche 997 of Larbre Competition who claimed the fastest lap. So we now move on to Thursday with some showers forecast could we have seen the fastest laps of qualifying here. Possibly. But we are sure there are plenty more twists to come in the Le Mans 2011 story.

Written by Richard Webb
Photos by Dave Davies (on circuit) and Dan Carr (pit lane)

Keep up to date with the action as it happens via our Twitter account @lemansrace