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Clarification and Qualification

Finally the sun broke through the clouds, and Le Mans steamed in Thursday's warm sunshine. After three days of being soaked to the skin, it was a pleasant change.

The official day began with a Press Conference from the ACO. Amongst the various announcements made and topics discussed, one concerned a clarification of the revised regulations relating to engines and driver qualification. For the first time this year a new regulation had been imposed that stipulated that every team had to nominate two engines for each car, and that the engine they employed for qualifying had to be the same one that the car used at the start of the race. The penalty for changing the engine after qualifying was to lose ten grid positions in qualifying and face a three minute stop-go penalty during the third hour of the race.

The tradition - almost from time immemorial - has been to fit a new race engine on Friday, so this new regulation was met with howls of protest up and down the pitlane. After all, an engine that had done six hours of free practice on Wednesday, and then perhaps another four on Thursday, is unlikely to be in the peak of fitness for a 24 hour race. The thinking behind the revised regulation had been to deter teams from fitting highly-tuned qualifying engines simply in order to set a quick time, and then replace them with a more standard (and reliable unit) for the race. At a time when the ACO is trying to level the financial playing field, and promote motorsport as a more environmentally responsible sport, the idea is sound. Teams with more money could more easily afford the luxury of a dedicated qualifying engine, but in practice, the regulation was just as likely to penalise those teams with smaller budgets.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCOn 1st June the ACO published a clarification. This stated that the teams had use of two designated engines, as previously, but that these engines could be swapped and changed as and when the teams saw fit, without penalty. However, if a third engine was required, the team would incur a new and different penalty. Anyone needing to fit a third engine would begin the race from the pitlane, but fifteen minutes after the official start. Although this communiqué was distributed to team managers, it was not made generally available, and even as late as Wednesday evening,there were many in the media and elsewhere, even within teams, who still understood the previous stipulation to be in force. Appreciating this to be the case, the ACO issued a further clarification on Thursday morning.

Another matter eventually cleared up, but not until Thursday morning, was the question of driver qualification. Since Wednesday's session was technically free practice, and not qualifying, times set during those six hours could not be considered as contributing towards a driver's need to set a time within a fixed percentage of overall pole. That requirement still had to be met on Thursday evening, during official qualifying. However, because they are not time-related, the "night laps" completed by a driver on Wednesday do contribute towards his (or her, in Vanina Ickx case) need to complete three timed laps during the designated period of darkness, after ten o'clock.

The official statement reads as follows:

We draw your attention to the following point:
According to the supplementary regulations of the “24 Heures du Mans”, the drivers can only be qualified during the qualifying practice sessions on Thursday.
The Wednesday session is a free practice session. The laps at night will be taken into account on Wednesday and Thursday from 10.00 pm. to 12.00 pm.

Evidently, this is still not clear enough, and even five minutes before qualifying was due to commence, two team managers interviewed on Radio Le Mans gave contradicting interpretations; one insisting that his drivers had not done their night laps, even though they'd done more than three on Wednesday, while the second believed that they had. It is understood that the latter is correct.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC


The start for official qualifying for the 77th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours was delayed for 24 minutes after an incident during the previous session, when one of the Formula Le Mans Oreca prototypes had an off into the barriers, and the Armco took some time to be repaired. It was confirmed shortly after the session began that the period would be extended to 21:25 to ensure two full hours before darkness fell.

At 19:24 the first cars began streaming out of the pitlane, headed by two of the three Gulf-liveried Lola Aston Martins. Tommy was there with them a few seconds later, under instructions to complete a single installation lap. He completed that, declaring that "everything feels OK," as he entered the pitlane. The team checked camber on all four wheels, and quickly whipped the engine off to ensure that everything there was functioning OK. Tommy was also able to confirm that the changes made to the car's aero since Wednesday had worked as planned, and the car felt less draggy on the straights.

Checked and passed as fit, Tommy eased the Lola Mazda back out on track, knowing he had to do three timed laps before returning to the pitlane.

Ten minutes completed, and with Tommy yet to do a flying lap, overall quickest was Darren Turner in the 008 Aston. Fastest in LMP2, Guy Smith in the ASM Ginetta-Zytek. Heading GT1, Oliver Gavin in the #64 Corvette, and topping the list in GT2, young Jonny Cocker in the Drayson Racing Aston Martin Vantage.

The out-lap from Tommy, a 6:52.422 including the pitstop, gave him 35th overall. His first true flyer, a 3:48.394, threw the Lola well up the screens, to top out at 16th overall, third in LMP2 behind Emanuel Collard, fastest in the Team Essex Porsche Spyder (on 3:40.796) and Guy Smith's 3:46.866.

Tommy's second timed lap was a slower 3:48.394, but on his third and final lap during this period he managed two "green" first sectors - the lights on the timing screen revealing that he'd covered those sectors quicker than previously - and crossed the line in a time of 3:45.478 to regain 4th in class. Reminded by Phil Barker to "come in this time please Tommy," the Brazilian confirmed that he was "in this lap" and returned to the pitlane at 19:54 pm.

Half an hour gone, and the situation in LMP2 had Collard still leading with a 3:39.948, with Sasha Maassen second in the Team Goh Spyder, 3:43.114, and Jonny Kane third with a best of 3:43.744 for the #33 Speedy Sebah, narrowly ahead of Tommy's 3:45.478.

Tommy was in the garage for almost ten minutes while some minor adjustments were made to the car, and then returned to the rack at 20:05, with permission from Phil to do two more timed laps. He rejoined not long after Guy Smith had improved the best from the #40 ASM Quifel Ginetta-Zytek by posting 3:44.298, demoting Tommy to fifth.

Despite complaining of traffic, Tommy managed a fastest middle-sector on his out-lap, and then followed this by a new quickest lap on his first flyer, setting 3:44.432. It wasn't an improvement in position, but it suggested there was more to come. It was 20:18 pm as he headed back to the pits, where the team carried out a further series of tweaks and refuelled the car.

Photo:David Stephens / Studio 21

One hour completed, and situation was:
Franck Montagny fastest overall in the #8 Peugeot on 3:25.608, followed by Alexander Primat in the #3 Audi R15, two seconds behind, and Pedro Lamy third in the #7 Peugeot. In LMP2, no change from previously, with #31 leading the pack on 3:39.948, followed by the Goh Spyder and then the Speedy Lola, narrowly ahead of RML in fourth.

In GT1, the fastest time had been set by Jan Magnussen in the #63 Corvette at 3:57.114, ahead of team-mate Olivier Beretta the #64, and then the first of the Luc Alphand Corvettes third, but three seconds behind the factory cars. In GT2, Marc Lieb topped the class in the #77 Felbermayr Porsche (4:05.854) from Pierre Kaffer in the #82 Ferrari, and the Team AF Corse Ferrari third.

Tommy returned to the fray at 20:30 with a full tank and a track that was heavily infested by traffic. Neither factor was conducive to quick times, but that wasn't his objective, although 3:45.718 in race trim was a very healthy pace. Happy that the car was handling comfortably, he'd be handing over soon to Mike.

Mike took to the track at 20:48pm, and began a series of successively quicker laps, topping out with a personal best of 3:58.648. He returned to the pitlane with the car on 20 laps total at 21:12 for a refuel and driver-change to Chris Dyson.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCChris Dyson began his out-lap at 21:16 with the plan for him to run to the flag. The RML Lola Mazda was still holding fifth in class, and Chris's had time for just one flying lap; a 3:56.922.

Chris's effort was somewhat eclipsed by the round of applause that rippled around the track when Allan McNish in the #4 Audi R15 finished the session with a time of 3:23.650 to take provisional pole, at the end of the first two hours, with a time of 3:23.650, a full second quicker the time set by Bourdais in the #8 Peugeot.

Second Period

As the clock ticked up towards ten o'clock, there was a flurry of activity within the RML pit garage, as Tommy was returned to the car and the pre-heated slicks - the closest the team will get to qualifiers this year - were rapidly fitted to the car.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

At 10:03, with a blip of the throttle, the red, white and blue Lola sped out of the pitlane.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCThe opening half hour after the break, when the track temperature is still high and the light is fairly good, is often the period when the quickest times are set, and Tommy was keen to make the most of the opportunity. That was denied him on his first lap, when he encountered heavy traffic. He told Phil Barker over the radio, who reassured the Brazilian that all that was expected of him was to "do his best". "Thankyou," came the brief reply.

To prove the point, his opening lap was a 3:49.976, whereas the #41 Zytek (with Philip Peter in the cockpit) did make an improvement, closing to within a second of Tommy's earlier time. Jonny Kane also improved his time in the #33 Lola, clocking 3:43.226 to secure third in class.

Tommy's second lap was significantly different, however, and a 3:43.552 was enough to snick through into fourth, leap-frogging Olivier Pla in the #40 ASM Ginetta-Zytek. But the Frenchman was immediately onto a responding charge, and followed through moments later to record 3:42.012 and lay claim to third in LMP2.

As predicted, the action continued for several more minutes. Next to improve was Andrea Piccini in the #30 Racing Box Lola. A time of 3:42.848 from the Italian was enough to deny both Kane and Erdos of their position and reserve fourth place. Encountering further traffic on his next lap, Tommy could do no more than a 3:43.976, despite a fastest third sector, and that was it, attempt over. He was lying sixth in class.

On the next lap, Tommy returned to the pitlane and was immediately called in to the weighbridge for a quick checkup. It was 10:23, and the focus now was to get the other two drivers back into the car and ticking off their three-lap "night lap" requirement completed as soon as possible.

Mike completed three timed laps, as requested, clocking a best of 4:03.556. In the meantime, the situation throughout the grid had settled down, and the frenetic action of that first half hour after the break had eased to a trickle of occasional sector improvements and fresh places for the lower orders. Qualifying wasn't exactly settled, but there was a feeling that there wasn't a great deal more to come. Mike pitted at 10:50 pm.

Final Hour. Chris Dyson began his first night session in the RML Lola cockpit a few minutes later, just as Xavier Pompidou made the first improvement for some while in the #33 Speedy Sebah Lola, and followed that by another - 3:41.724 was also enough to move the blue and silver Lola up to third in class.

Chris completed his three laps, with times that improved with each tour, starting with a 55.196, following on with a 55.060, and then ending with a 3:50.832. At a time when few of the other LMP2 runners were breaking four minutes, this was an impressive run from the American, making his race debut with RML.

Once back into the garage, Tommy prepared to return to the cockpit while the engineers made some detail adjustments to the set-up. The Brazilian would be sent out to evaluate the changes during the last half-hour of the qualifying session.

11:32 and Thomas Erdos threaded his way out of the pitlane and began his final run of the day. His return to the track was largely overlooked while all eyes were following Stephane Sarrazin in the #8 Peugeot which, for three successive laps, set outright fastest first and second sectors only to be baulked in the third, each time quite innocently by an Audi. His best lap; 3:23.728 was a mere tenth slower than McNish's impressive pre-beak lap.

Tommy's first flyer certainly started with promise. Half a second up at the end of the first sector, he continued in similar vein, clocking his quickest second sector as well. Maintaining his pace as best he could, he encountered some traffic on the final run, but still crossed the line in 3:41.952; a full second quicker than he'd gone before. That moved the RML Lola up two places to fourth in class. "The car feels much better," declared Tommy. "I think we have a very good car for the race now."

Track conditions were favouring the brave. Seconds after Tommy set his fastest lap of the evening, Sarrazin finally found the clear track he'd been seeking, and crossed the line in a time of 3:22.888 to reclaim a hold on pole for Peugeot. His team-mate Nic Minassian then set an improved time of 3:24.860 to reinforce his hold on third, sandwiching the lead Audi. Tommy returned to the pitlane. Ten minutes of the session remained, but RML had called it a day.

There would be no further changes in LMP2, and pole had gone to a Porsche RS Spyder once again, but not the one that took the win in 2008, but close rivals Team Essex, with the ex-Van Merksteijn Porsche, now in the hands of Team Goh, second, and the first of the Lolas third.

LMP2 Times - Qualifying

Pos No. Overall Team Driver Car
1 31 19 Team Essex Collard/Elgaard/Poulsen Porsche RS Spyder
2 5 20 Team Goh Ara/unimoto/Maassen Porsche RS Spyder
3 33 23 Speedy Sebah Pompidou/Luenberger/Kane Lola B08/80 Coupé
24 RML AD Group Erdos/Newton/Dyson Lola B08/86 Coupé
25 Quifel ASM Amaral/Pla/Smith Ginetta Zytek GZ09S
26 Racing Box Biagi/Bobbi/Piccini Lola B08/86 Coupé
7 41 27 GAC Racing Team Ojeh/Gosselin/Peter Zytek GZ07S
28 Oak Racing Ajlani/Lahaye/Moureau Pescarolo Mazda
9 32 29 Barazi Epsilon Barazi/Berville/Moseley Zytek GZ07S
30 Kruse Schiller Marsh/Noda /dePourtales Lola B05/40
33 Bruichladdich Bruneau/Greaves/Rostan Radical SR9 AER
36 Oak Racing Nicolet/Hein/Yvon Pescarolo Mazda

In LMP1, it was pole to Sarrazin in the #8 Peugeot, with Audi #1 second, Peugeot #7 third, and then the Pescarolo Peugeot #17 in fourth. The fastest petrol-engined car is the 007 Aston Martin, 8th overall and narrowly ahead of the sister 007 car with Strakka Racing's #23 Ginetta-Zytek third. Yes, in many ways, this is a class apart.

All photographs today by Marcus Potts / CMC

The Le Mans 2009 gallery can be accessed here

Le Mans 24 Hours 2009

Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France
Qualifying - Thursday June 11th 2009