The only free practice session that precedes the 24 Hours of Le Mans is usually something of a dress rehearsal for the teams, before the serious stuff begins in qualifying. This year’s session was no exception to that rule.
As 16:00 approached, the cars queued up to wait for the green light signalling the start of free practice. The free practice and qualifying sessions are the only chance the drivers get before the race to drive the full Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans (qualifying starts this evening, 22:00 to midnight, followed by two sessions tomorrow, 19:00-21:00 then 22:00 to midnight), so are key to the teams’ preparations.
SMP Racing’s #17 BR Engineering BR1-AER was the first car to take the track, but the others soon followed. Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Mike Conway (#7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid) was the first to clock a noteworthy lap time with 3:27.743. In the sister car (#8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid), Fernando Alonso lost no time in responding, banking a lap at 3:26.803. Thirty minutes into the session, the two Japanese cars topped the time sheets.
Then Thomas Laurent joined the fray. He notched up several fast laps at the wheel of his #3 Rebellion R13-Gibson (Rebellion Racing), with a best time of 3:26.618, placing him between the two hybrids. He followed up with 3:24.057 then 3:22.941, but in the meantime Conway had improved upon his previous time, clocking 3:22.165 in the Toyota. Fernando Alonso came back to set the pace with a new fastest lap, banking a time of 3:20.941 just before 17:00. That time was subsequently beaten by Rebellion Racing’s Gustavo Menezes with a nifty 3:19.960 in the #3 Rebellion R13-Gibson! Since 2012 and the introduction of the hybrid regulations, none of the ‘non-hybrid” LMP1s had shown that kind of pace.
The red flag was waved when the Proton Competition #99 Porsche 911 RSR, driven by Tracy Krohn, crashed off the track. By the time the session resumed, the track was rather wet. Showers persisted, initially preventing the drivers from improving on their previous bests. However, with 30 minutes to go, Stoffel Vandoorne assumed command, clocking a lap at 3:19.931. The BR Engineering gave a demonstration of sheer velocity, recording a top speed of 345.6 kph. Then, in the dying minutes of free practice, Kamui Kobayashi improved on the #7 Toyota’s time with a lap at 3:18.091!
In the LMP2 class, things were pretty much as expected with less than 10 seconds separating the 20 cars, as the teams chose to finetune their settings and strategy rather than to race against the clock. The top three comprises the DragonSpeed #31 Oreca 07-Gibson, the G-Drive Racing #26 Aurus 01-Gibson, and the Graff #39 Oreca 07-Gibson.
The session proved tricky for TDS Racing with the #28 Oreca 07-Gibson. “I had problems accelerating, with power dropping out after two or three seconds when I had my foot down,” explained Mathieu Vaxivière.
In the LMGTE Pro class, Porsche took the top two spots with the #92 and #94 Porsche 911 RSRs. But what really counts is that there are just 2.5 seconds between 16 of the 17 cars in the class! Given that several teams recorded their fastest lap in the final few minutes of the session, their qualifying times should be even more impressive. It is impossible to say who will take pole position in the class.
It was quite an eventful session for the LMGTE Am class, with the Car Guy Racing #57 Ferrari 488 GTE spinning off at Mulsanne with Takeshi Kimura at the wheel. Satoshi Hoshino (#88 Porsche 911 RSR for Dempsey-Proton Racing) went off at the Porsche Curves. However, more worrying was Tracy Krohn’s crash (Proton Competition #99 Porsche 911 RSR) between the two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight. He was later said to be in good spirits but was transferred to hospital in Le Mans as a precautionary measure.
The Dempsey-Proton Racing #77 Porsche 911 RSR leads the class, ahead of the Spirit of Race #54 Ferrari 488 GTE and the only Aston Martin in the class, the #98 driven by Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda.