The first free practice session for this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans saw very small gaps between the three Hypercar teams: both Toyotas and the Alpine clocked their fastest lap times in the same tenth (3m29.3s). The two Glickenhaus hypercars were marginally behind in the session yet they have already shown over the past weekend that they could raise their game at the level of their two other contenders.
In LMP2, United Autosport confirmed its outstanding pace (3m29.441s) and consolidated the idea that an ORECA 07 could claim overall victory on Sunday.
The session was red flagged for nearly 20 minutes with an hour left in the session following contact between Antonio Fuoco in the No. 47 Cetilar Racing Ferrari 488 GTE Evo and Antonio Felix da Costa in the No. 28 Jota ORECA 07 Gibson at Tertre Rouge. Both drivers left their cars uninjured.
“I know Antonio very well,” said da Costa during the session. “It was just a misunderstanding. I am sorry for our team. At least, damages are limited.” The No. 47 and the No. 28 returned to the pits on flat beds with significant frontal damages reported for the latter car.
In the Hypercar category, the No. 8 Toyota Gazoo Racing GR10 Hybrid driven by Kazuki Nakajima quickly set the fastest lap time (3m29.396s) in the early moments of the session. He remained at the top of the time sheets for nearly two hours but dropped two positions in the rankings with Nicolas Lapierre in the No. 36 Alpine Elf Matmut A480 Gibson clocking a 3m29.395s and Jose Maria Lopez in the No. 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing GR10 snatching a 3m29.309s.
In LMP2, 30 minutes into the session, Phil Hanson in the No. 22 United Autosport ORECA 07 Gibson clocked the first sub 3m30s lap time of the race week (3.29.441). He wouldn’t be challenged until the checkered flag.
The No. 26 G-Drive Racing Aurus 01 Gibson shared by Roman Rusinov, Franco Colapinto, and Nick de Vries ended in second position, nearly seven tenths behind the fastest LMP2 (3m30.094s). The No. 28 Jota ORECA Oreca 07 Gibson driven by Sean Gelael, Stoffel Vandoorne and Tom Blomqvist was third fastest (3m30.629s).
Further down in the LMP2 ranks, Marco Sorensen in the No. 20 High Class Racing ORECA 07 Gibson went off on its out lap before the Dunlop chicane, hit a tire wall and damaged the right front of his car. He returned to the pits for repairs that lasted close to 75 minutes.
This was the first of several incidents in class, the No. 74 Racing Team India Eurasia Ligier JSP217 Gibson and the No. 29 Racing Team Nederland ORECA going off at the same time in the Dunlop chicane gravel trap — there was no contact between the two cars.
During the second hour of the session, the No. 29 Racing Team Nederland ORECA 07 Gibson lost a significant quantity of fluid on the track. The car had to be repaired before it could resume testing.
The No. 34 Inter Europol Competition ORECA 07 Gibson also spent a significant amount of time in its pit following attention to the car’s alternator.
Finally, in the final hour, the No. 21 DragonSpeed ORECA 07 driven by Juan Pablo Montoya went off at Indianapolis. The car was returned to the pits on a flat bed with a broken wheel while the session was placed under full course yellow.
The placement of qualifying 90 minutes after the end of today’s first practice session poses a tricky challenge for team managers. As well as setting cars up for qualifying, and ultimately deciding grid position early in the pre-race programme, some drivers had to run installation laps: Sam Bird, for example, replacing injured Davide Rigon in the No. 52 AF Corse Ferrari. The British driver didn’t take much reminding of his previous experience here with the car though, delivering a 3m50.614s in the second hour to lead the class, team mate Alessandro Pier Guidi following suit a tenth behind to depose the GTE-Pro Porsches that had put down a leading marker in the first hour.
Corvette’s introduction of its C8.R at Le Mans started somewhat tentatively. The No. 64 car bedded into the 3:52.3’s, while the No. 63 car initially slowed and faltered out on track before settling down into the mid 3:52.6’s, both mixing it down with the leading GTE-Ams. Nick Tandy jumped aboard the No. 64 car in the final minutes though to slam in a 3:50.163 in a class-leading move, signalling intent. Daniel Serra’s No. 52 AF Corse Ferrari would see off the 2015 winner’s challenge however, posting a 3m50.123s to regain the top the GTE-Pro timing screen as the chequered flag was shown.
This late show of pace bodes well for the imminent 1 hour qualifying session, Gianmaria Bruni showing Porsche’s potential by going third with a 3:50.488 as the stop/start session drew to an end.
Track temperature being significantly cooler than expected at this time of the year, Matteo Cairoli nevertheless opened Porsche’s bidding early to head the overall GTE time sheet until the final few minutes. Over half a second ahead of the leading GTE-Pro times, 3m50.193s was the Team Project 1’s Porsche 911 RSR-19 marker, the best part of 3 seconds better than the Test Day GTE overall best — and the fastest ever GTE-Am free practice or qualifying lap around La Sarthe.
Ben Barker deposed Dempsey Proton Racing’s No. 88 Porsche for second with a 3:51.326 in the last 30 minutes for a Porsche 1-2-3 in class, Kessel Racing’s Ferrari a tenth off in fourth.
Tom Ferrier, Team Principle for last year’s winning TF Sport entry, provided some insight to the 3:51.224 that would see his Aston Martin tucked in behind the Kessel Ferrari: “It’s a bit of a compromise in preparing the car for qualifying and giving all the guys time to drive. What we run in qualifying will be pretty much what we run for the race, though.”
Antonio Fuoco’s tangle with the No. 38 Jota ORECA at Tertre Rouge means significant repairs will threaten the Cetilar Racing Ferrari’s part in qualifying, continuing the team’s run of bad luck since Monza.
Caution periods blighted the end of the three-hour session, the No. 60 Iron Lynx and the No. 46 Project 1 Porsche the guilty GTE-Am parties as gravel traps were found at Mulsanne Corner and Porsche Curves respectively.