Toyota on pole at Le Mans

Le Mans

Kazuki Nakajima stole Porsche’s thunder by securing pole position for Toyota in qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The Japanese, who shares his TS040 Hybrid with Stephane Sarrazin and Alex Wurz, had already snatched the top spot on his final lap in the first of Thursday’s two incident-packed sessions. Then early in the second, which ran into darkness and on to midnight, he lowered his benchmark to 3min 21.789sec, three tenths faster than the best of the Porsches of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb.

Pole position was a clear and realistic target for Porsche on its return to the top flight at Le Mans. The pair of 919 Hybrids were first and second after the first session on Wednesday night. But Toyota’s edge, as displayed in the first two rounds of the World Endurance Championship, was enough to spoil the fairytale comeback.

Silverstone and Spa 6 Hours winner Sebastien Buemi also improved his time during the final session in the car he shares with Anthony Davidson and Nicolas Lapierre. The number 8 Toyota will start third, ahead of the other Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley.

LMP1 qualifying

1. Nakajima/Sarrazin/Wurz, Toyota 3m 21.789s
2. Dumas/Jani/Lieb, Porsche 3m 22.146s
3. Buemi/Davidson/Lapierre, Toyota 3m 22.523s
4. Bernhard/Hartley/Webber, Porsche 3m 22.908s
5. Albuquerque/Bonanomi/Jarvis, Audi 3m 23.271s
6. Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer, Audi 3m 24.276s
7. Beche/Heidfeld/Prost, Rebellion 3m 29.763s
8. Belicchi/Kraihamer/Leimer, Rebellion 3m 31.608s

As for Audi, the team that has dominated the Le Mans 24 Hours for so many years is still very much in the hunt – but it’s undoubtedly been an uncomfortable couple of days for the Joest-run squad.

First there was Loic Duval’s terrifying crash at the Porsche Curves on Wednesday, from which he miraculously emerged with a couple of grazes. The Frenchman, who won here last year with Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, was wisely ruled unfit to race despite his light injuries. Reserve Marc Gene has been drafted in to replace him.

The Spaniard had been due to drive Jota’s LMP2 Zytek, and the seat shuffle proved good news for Briton Oliver Turvey, who has now rejoined the team with whom he raced in last year’s European Le Mans Series.

The number 1 Audi was unrecognisable from the rear, in the wake of Duval’s smash. The team thus worked through the night to build up a car around a new monocoque in time for Thursday’s pair of qualifiers.

But further drama was to come for the entry, when Lucas di Grassi crunched the nose with an off in the first session. He then compounded his error with a wayward return to the pits. The Brazilian had nursed the car back to the entry to the Ford chicane, then made a mess of getting out of the way of the Pegasus Morgan-Nissan.

The LMP2 car was forced on to the grass and a sizeable impact which forced the second stoppage of the session. It was a costly – and heartbreaking moment – for the small team.

The first red flag had been for another crash at the Porsche Curves, as former GP2 frontrunner James Calado suffered a sizable impact in his GTE Pro Ferrari 458. The Briton, who emerged without serious injury, is another who has been forced to step down for the weekend and will be replaced by Pierre Kaffer.

The Ligier name made a successful return to Le Mans as the new JS P2-Nissan took pole in LMP2 for Thriet by TDS Racing, in the hands of Tristan Gommendy, Pierre Thriet and Ludovic Badey.

Ferrari took the initiative in both GTE classes, with Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella on top in the Pro category. And single-seater convert Sam Bird impressed by heading the Am class – with a time only second to the Pro polesitter. Corvette, Aston Martin and Porsche will all take the fight to the Ferraris come the weekend.

Di Grassi’s errors were the most prominent of the day-into-night sessions, but he was hardly the lone offender. Some of the driving, in each of the four classes, left much to be desired in sessions that had a definite edge to them as Le Mans baked in balmy conditions.

Out on the circuit, down at Terte Rouge, the Toyotas’ prodigious acceleration was visibly superior, although both the Porsches and Audis hardly looked shabby through the fast right-hander.

As ever at Le Mans, the true picture will only emerge a couple of stints into the race. But as it stands, Toyota has lived up to its pre-race favourite status. Then again, the team knows that means little. On Wednesday an oil leak brought Sarrazin to a halt, and that’s all it would take for the Japanese marque to lose a race it has been trying to win since the mid-1980s.

The race begins at 3pm CET on Saturday.

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