Porsche completed a dominant display in qualifying for this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, locking out the front three grid positions, breaking records and putting almost a three-second gap on their nearest rivals, Audi, before the serious business of the race itself begins on Saturday afternoon.
The hot times were set in the first qualifying session on Wednesday night and despite some pace being shown in the final session on Thursday evening, Neel Jani’s 3min 16.887sec was not to be bettered.
It was almost two seconds clear of the previous lap record of 3:18.513, set by Stéphane Sarrazin in a Peugeot 908 in 2008, an achievement made all the more impressive since the regulations have forced manufacturers to cut fuel consumption by 30% over the past two years. This then was a real sign of how efficient and powerful the hybrid technology in the World Endurance Championship – of which Le Mans is the double-points scoring, blue-riband event – has become.
Jani shares the No18 Porsche 919 Hybrid with Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb and they were followed home on the grid by the No17 of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley, eight-tenths of a second back and the No18 of Nico Hulkenberg (taking time off from his day job in Formula One with Force India), Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy, 1.9sec behind. In only their second year of returning to the top-end of sports car racing, Porsche have shown remarkable development. Always quick in a straight line this season the marque have put the long straights of La Sarthe to their advantage, indeed this was the fastest time since chicanes were introduced to the Mulsanne straight in order to slow the cars. Now they must prove themselves with race pace and reliability.
Audi, winners here last year and 13 times since 2000, are the team Porsche must beat. They won the reliability battle in 2014 during an old-school attritional race and will not be in any way disheartened by claiming fourth, fifth and sixth on the grid. Britain’s Oliver Jarvis alongside Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval were closest to the Porsches, with last year’s winners, André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler in fifth. They have won the first two rounds of the WEC this year, proving in race pace quicker than the Porsche through the corners and will expect to do so again here. Equally tyre wear will be crucial and the Audi’s ability to use its rubber better, as they showed double-stinting at the last round in Spa, may well prove crucial in the race.
Toyota, who had the quickest car last year and but for mechanical failures might have won the 24, continued their tough season, down on their rivals. The No2 of Sarrazin, Alexander Wurz and Mike Conway was six and half seconds back from the pole time and two and a half from the third Audi of Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi and René Rast. The sister Toyota of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima was in eighth but Nakajima had insisted they were concentrating their efforts on finding race pace and that they could still challenge come Saturday.
Newcomers Nissan, here debuting three of their new prototypes, have approached the less confined regulations of the WEC with brio and entered a front-engined, front-wheel drive but have had to compromise in various elements in order to make the race and were down on pace from the front runners.
With the privateer teams Rebellion taking ninth and 10th and ByKolles 11th, Nissan’s highest-placed car was the No22 of Harry Tincknell, Michael Krumm and Alex Buncombe, with their sister cars in 13th and 15th places.
For Nissan, clearly this is a year when reaching the finish line will be celebrated as a win, and they will expect to return next year with a car able to fulfil its real design potential. For Porsche, however, on pole for the first time since 1997, the win itself is most definitely the target. They start as favourites but as last year proved, nothing can be taken for granted at this ultimate endurance race.
This article was written by Giles Richards at the Circuit de la Sarthe, for theguardian.com on Friday 12th June 2015 15.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010