It’s Le Mans at last!
After several months of preparations and hard work, Toyota Racing has arrived at Circuit de la Sarthe for arguably the greatest endurance race in the world – 24 Hours of Le Mans. The afternoon started with a four hour free practice session. This is the first time the cars all ran on this circuit since the official test two weeks ago. The session wasn’t without incident, but more on that later. More importantly, the first of three qualifying sessions took place in the evening with our cars finishing in 4th and 6th places.
Le Mans for me is a bit of an unknown – the event, not the heritage (or the 1971 Steve McQueen cult classic “Le Mans“) or its awesome reputation. But, it’s my first time here so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It’s a good challenge. My first impression is that it’s big. Not just the event itself, but the real estate the event occupies, as is with motorsports. I’ve spent a lot of time all day walking – and getting hopelessly lost on a few occasions. But, quite similar to the Nürburgring, fans can really get up close to drivers and the action unlike some other formulas.
The weather has been a little odd too. Before I came, I kept checking the forecast to see if I need to bring summer or winter clothes. It changed from one day to the next, hence my heavy luggage with both choices at the ready. During the practice session, a little rain came down but quickly evaporated without affecting the session. Otherwise, it’s been a pretty nice day.
I was fortunate enough to be in the garage when the cars were being readied for the free practice. It was great to see the team anxious to get going, waiting for the green flag to drop for the start. As the countdown clock began, our TS030 HYBRID cars were wheeled out and promptly left the pits, with very little sound. The best way to describe the sound of the electric motor driving the TS030 in the pits is from Top Gear’s Le Mans preview today. They said that our car sounds like “the world’s biggest light sabre being switched on.”
Our #7 car (drivers: Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima) with Nakajima-san at the wheel put in a blistering time on lap 27 of 3:28.421, going up to 3rd place at the time. The car ran well through the entire session with all three drivers being able to get some laps in to finish the session in 5th.
Things got a bit rough for our #8 car though (drivers: Stéphane Sarrazin, Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi). After putting in some good lap times, the timing screens suddenly showed that Davidson stopped out on track. According to Davidson, he noticed some smoke so he decided to park it. The car completed just five laps and was on track for 34 minutes.
It took quite a while for the car to be brought back to the garage. Not too long after it did return, however, the team decided the change the engine and get it up and running in time for the qualifying session. Still, even after the misfortune, car #8 was firmly in 6th position with a time of 3:30.162.
It wasn’t long before qualifying started in the twilight, and the sky was getting dark very quickly. When the session started, both of our cars went out into the night together. It’s quite nice to see most of the cars on track very shortly after the start of qualifying. There’s no sitting and waiting in the pits because the drivers have to do a minimum of five laps in the dark.
After a quick installation lap and check in to the pits, Sarrazin was going well in the new-engined #8. The times weren’t blistering early on in the session because Sarrazin was still getting his eye in. This was the first time he drove the TS030 HYBRID on the Circuit de la Sarthe as he had to pull out of the official test session a few weeks ago.
Lapierre in car #7 set the quickest lap time of 3:27.191 and shot up to 2nd place where he stayed until the Audi’s put in some last minute fast laps. The #7 car finished 4th at the end of the session and over a second faster than the best time in practice.
After Sarrazin’s long stint in the #8 car to get the required laps in, Davidson took over and again did some really fast laps, including the car’s fastest lap of the session: 3:28.295. The times could have been better but what I heard from my colleagues spotting on other parts of the track and from the team is that the quick laps were affected by traffic on track. Car #8 ended the session in 6th place.
The result was encouraging, the team is satisfied and all drivers completed the minimum five laps of night driving needed to be allowed to drive in the race this weekend. Check out what our drivers had to say here.
The next two qualifying sessions are on Thursday from 19:00-21:00 and again from 22:00-00:00. Check out how you can follow our live race coverage here.