SARTHE, France – Toyota Gazoo Racing fired the first shot during the opening round of qualifying for the 86th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Wednesday, posting the fastest time with its No. 8 TS050 Hybrid prototype.
Kazuki Nakajima lapped the Circuit de la Sarthe in 3:17.270 in the entry co-driven by Sebastian Buemi and two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso.
The trio won the season-opening World Endurance Championship round at Spa-Francorchamps in May and hopes to go two-for-two to open the 2018-19 WEC Super Season.
“It was a normal session for us. It is good to be on provisional pole but it is only first qualifying so we have to see what happens for the rest of the week,” noted Nakajima. “It was difficult to put everything together on my lap, because the traffic was difficult. I put in a decent lap time, so it was a positive start to qualifying, but we need to work more on the race set-up and preparation as it is a very long (24 hour) race.”
“It was a good day and we learned a lot in free practice with the set-up. In qualifying, it was more about getting used to the conditions at night,” added Alonso. “It went well for me and it was important to get some laps in the dark; I’m looking forward to more tomorrow, as I am still finding some references and braking points. This race is so long and difficult, so anything can happen … but we are as prepared as we can be.”
Nakajima’s time was a tenth of a second better than the sister Toyota prototype co-driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez, which clocked the second-fastest lap of the day at 3:17.377 around the 8.467-mile, 38-turn course.
The pole lap for the No. 8 came on the car’s second of 31 laps turned around the Sarthe circuit during Wednesday’s two-hour qualifying round. The No. 7 Toyota made 33 laps.
None of the privateer entries in the LMP1 class came within two seconds of the two Toyota hybrids. The closest was the No. 17 SMP Racing BR1 AER of Stephane Sarrazin, who turned in a time of 3:19.483 on the car’s third of 24 circuits.
Rebellion Racing’s pair of R-13 Gibsons completed the top five, with the No. 1 entry shared by Andre Lotterer, Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer going fourth-fastest after a lap of 3:19.662. The No. 3 of Thomas Laurent, Mathias Beche and Gustavo Menezes was a further three tenths adrift in fifth.
Paul Loup Chatin and the No. 48 IDEC Sport ORECA led the way in the LMP2 class, with Chatin posting a class-record lap of 3:24.956 in the car he shares with Paul Lafargue and former Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series champion Memo Rojas.
Of note in LMP2 is the No. 32 Ligier JS P217-Gibson of United Autosport, which boasts former Formula 1 and Indy car ace Juan Pablo Montoya on its three-man roster. That machine was 24th overall and 14th in class.
Porsche ruled both of the GT classes, with the No. 91 Porsche 911 RSR of Gianmaria Bruni storming to a blistering GTE-Pro lap record of 3:47.504 on its second of two posted laps, before Bruni went off-track at the Dunlop Bridge and into the gravel.
Bruni’s car was pushed behind the tire barriers and did not return during the session, but not before his fast lap shattered the previous best in the class by 3.3 seconds.
The best of the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs was the No. 66 of Olivier Pla, Stefan Mucke and Billy Johnson, which was third-fastest in class at 3:49.181. The other Ganassi entries were fourth (No. 68), eighth (No. 67) and 10th (No. 69) in GTE-Pro, respectively.
In GTE-Am, Dempsey Proton Racing’s No. 88 and No. 77 Porsche 911 RSRs secured a one-two sweep for the team, with a record 3:50.728 lap by Matteo Cairoli giving the No. 88 entry the nod against the rest of the class on Wednesday.
In all, three out of the four class lap records were broken in the opening qualifying round.