Thursday - Qualifying
The good news on Thursday morning comes from the Strakka camp, where Nick Leventis is back in the paddock and feeling fine after last night's heavy impact with the tyre wall at the Dunlop Chicane. As a team spokesman suggested, Nick is "astronaut fit" and intensely dedicated, and took the accident in his stride. He was released from hospital following routine check-ups late last night, and returned to the circuit to find the crew still hard at work on the car. They worked through the night to have the team's HPD ARX largely back together again by dawn, and are confident of having it ready for the Thursday evening sessions.
The ACO held a major news conference at 10:00 on Thursday morning, confirming the elevation of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) to World Championship status, as sanctioned by the FIA. The news was actually broken a few days ago by the FIA, almost as an afterthought in a broader press release about the Bahrain Grand Prix and the World Rally Championship. More information when we receive the official Press Release from the ACO.
Also announced at the conference was the likely (or should that be "unlikely" ?) contender for the fabled 56th slot on the Le Mans grid in 2012. The provision for the ACO to award a wildcard entry to the 24 Hours was suggested last year, but no suitable entry was received for this year's race. Now, however, a major new project has surfaced in the United States that appears to have received the ACO's blessing even before a car is built. Project 56 brings together several of America's most innovative high technology and motorsport companies in a radical attempt to redesign motorsport as we know it.
Project 56 unites the design capabilities of DeltaWing Racing Cars; the manufacturing know-how of All American Racers (owned by American racing legend Dan Gurney, who won Le Mans 1967) and Highcroft Racing, multiple title-winners in the ALMS and, until a month or so ago, the chosen racing partner for Honda in America. Full details are free-to-view on Dailysportscar, but it will be fascinating to watch as this remarkable concept develops. Currently, the whole idea is largely theoretical, but the designers seem confident that this is, as they say, "the Future".
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The RML AD Group hospitality was packed full to capacity at three on Thursday afternoon after journalists and photographers were invited round for a traditional English tea and cakes. It was an opportunity to "meet the team", and Phil Barker (Team Manager) was joined by Mike Newton, Thomas Erdos and Ben Collins for a talk and Q&A session, hosted by AD Group's Marketing Director, Pauline Norstrom.
The first part of the presentation included the first public screening of the exclusive on-board footage recovered from the RML AD Group HPD following Mike's 30G accident at Spa last month. Remarkably, the TransVu solid state system continued to record throughout the incident, capturing the initial moment of contact from Pedro Lamy's Peugeot, right through Mike's impact with the tyre-fronted concrete wall, and on to the moments after the dust began to settle.
Mike acknowledged the debt he owes to the various items of safety equipment that not only saved his life, but left him with little more than cuts and bruises. These included the all-new Arai GP6 carbon-fibre helmet, the HANS device that was fitted around the back of his neck, the BSS two-part seat insert, and the carbon composite "tub" that surrounded him. Although that was written off in the crash, Mike was back at the track the following day. "My glasses were broken into several pieces, and I'd made a good job of trying to eat the microphone, but apart from that, it was just strained muscles and bruising," he said.
Phil Barker talked about the massive task the team then faced in finding all the components necessary to rebuild the car, and then the actual process of stripping down and reconstructing the HPD ARX-01d. "I looked at the car when it came back from the accident, and just wondered, where do we go from here?" he said. So many components were damaged, many beyond any form of repair, and the initial task was simply to source replacements. These came from all around the world, and that alone was a logistical nightmare.
The total cost of the damage was estimated at over a quarter of a million Pounds, and before any work could begin, the extent of that damage had to be meticulously itemised for the benefit of the insurance company. Obviously the main component needed was a new chassis. The first plan had been to source a new tub from Oreca, who now own the manufacturing rights to the Courage LC75 upon which the HPD tub is based. Oreca was happy to supply a new unit, but simply couldn't meet the tight deadline needed if the team was to race at Le Mans. Instead, as an interim, it was negotiated that the former Andretti Green tub would be leased from HPD in the States.
With a frighteningly tight deadline every hour proved crucial. When the tub was shipped to Amsterdam instead of Heathrow, that cost the team several additional days delay, and the car - the complete Andretti Green HPD - didn't arrive at the team's Wellingborough workshops until late on the evening of Thursday 26th May. By the time the crew left in the early hours of the following morning it had been completely stripped down, and the bare tub handed over to the paint shop. When the mechanics turned up for work again later that morning, at about nine, a sparklingly white tub was sitting in the refit area waiting for them!
The rebuild took five days to complete, but a further two days were then lost while a number of vital components arrived. Every day of that week was long and arduous, with the engineers and mechanics working fourteen and sixteen-hour days just to meet the schedule. Miraculously, the car was ready for the shakedown test at Snetterton on June 3rd, and more miraculously still, it was perfect, first time. The only problem was a minor engine management issue that the guys from HPD sorted in a matter of minutes.
Mike also spoke about his physical recovery, and expressed his gratitude to the medical staff at the Spa circuit and also the hospital in nearby Verviers, whose professional concern and thorough examination had bolstered his confidence and proved that he's made of pretty stern stuff. "It's just great to be back in the car again, and always so reassuring to know that it was going to be right on the button, from the moment we first sat in it."
Pauline then gave the assembled journalists an explanation of the relationship between RML and AD Group, and the way that AD's product range and marketing philosophy dovetails so perfectly with the sportscar programme. Phil spoke about the rebuild process since the crash, and explained how the car had been tested at Snetterton in race trim, taken straight to scrutineering with the same components fitted, and then rebuilt again before Wednesday with the components scheduled for the ten hours of practice and qualifying. Once that's complete, the car will be stripped down and rebuilt again ready for the race.
"It is amazing how the guys in the team work, marvelled Tommy. "They always produce a car that feels good to drive from the moment you climb into the cockpit. It's like a Swiss watch - precision engineering through and through." He also pointed out that LMP2 is largely for privateer teams, and RML AD Group doesn't have the massive resources of some of the factory squads, yet manages to achieve such high professional standards.
"The work Phil's team does sets a very high target for us to aim for," said Ben. "We always hope to look after the car as best we can, and ensure it comes back in a good state for the next driver, but we also try to wring its neck as well. It's a contradiction in terms, but we need to do that to do justice to all the hard work."
"It's eight years since I was last here," he added. "Driving round this fabulous circuit immediately put a smile on my face. This place has such tremendous charisma, and being here is just living a dream. I love it."
With the formal section complete, the "Meet & Greet" moved on to an open Question & Answer session. These ranged from a simple "When do you have to give the (Andretti Green) tub back?" to technical queries about the safety components fitted to a contemporary race car. The "ultimate race pace" was also questioned, to which Tommy predicted that a good laptime might be around the 3:50 mark for the HPD. "The tyre that can double-stint around here - or maybe triple stint - is the one that will determine the race pace," he suggested.
"Reliability is everything," said Phil. "The chassis and suspension is proven, and we know it's a 24 hour car. The unknown quantity is the engine, which is all-new for this year. The guys at HPD have run it extensively on the dyno, but never in a car for this length of time. As a team we can only use our experience to do the best we can."
Sir Stirling Retires
One unexpected outcome of the qualifying session for this weekend's Le Mans legends race was the announcement that Sir Stirling Moss has raced his last race. After stepping out of the Porsche RS61 that he was driving during the session, he is reputed to have said that he would not be racing again. If he is true to his word, this beings to a close the remarkable career of a quite remarkable man.
Later in the evening Sir Stirling's official Twitter post confirmed the news: "It is official the white patey helmet has been hung up for good. Stirling Moss has retired from competitive racing." A very sad day indeed.
The second two-hour period of official qualifying started at 19:00 (CET), and Tommy was among the first swathe of cars to take to the track. After an installation lap and brief return to the pitlane he was soon back out and setting some representative times. Running second in LMP2 initially, others in the class came into their stride, and by the half-hour mark things had settled down to a more predictable order.
The timing screens were displaying only the times from the Thursday session, so determining pole was difficult, but quickest in P2 with 40 minutes gone was the #26 Signatech Oreca 03 on 3:42.99 from Ordonez. Second fastest was Jonny Kane in the rebuilt Strakka HPD on 3:45.041, and Pierre Kaffer third with the Pecon Lola #39.
Fourth fastest at this stage was the #48 Oreca, with Kraihamer in the cockpit, followed by Charouz in the Oak #49, and then Tommy's 3:49.163 in sixth. In the stakes for outright pole, Montagny was holding top slot for Peugeot with 3:27.906, which was almost a second down on Sarrazin's chart-topper from Wednesday.
Ten to eight and an improvement came from Rosier in the #44 Norma to post an improved best for the red and black car of 3:48.420, and then Frey in the #40 Race Performance Oreca Judd also posted a new best of 3:48.603 to demote the RML #36 to 8th in P2. Tommy, however, was already into the pits to hand over to Mike. Briefly, a safety car was deployed to protect the marshals while debris was removed from the track.
Two more quick movers in LMP2. Tom Kimber-Smith, one of the quickest on Wednesday, popped into fourth for Greaves in the #41 Zytek. With improvements from Charouz as well, that meant a slippage to ninth in class for the RML HPD. However, seeing Jonny Kane's time in the Strakka car (still holding second in P2) there was evidently still more to come from the HPD chassis.
At ten past eight another drama for Aston Martin, with the 009 called in for a weigh-check, and then leaving the awning with the right-rear brakes alight. Primat leaped out while the marshals extinguished the flames. Not being a good week for the AMR-One.
Not quite so unrewarding for RML AD Group, but still mildly disappointing to see an improvement for Barlesi in the #35 Oak Pescarolo causing the #36 to drop another slot. Tommy's early best held 10th in P2, 24th overall, but with Ben Collins due in the cockpit next, and then another stab at a quick lap from Tommy Erdos later in the evening, the order was far from settled.
A significant improvement from Kraihamer in the #48 Oreca Nissan saw the works car through to second in LMP2 with 40 minutes to go. That made the order (for Thursday) #26 quickest from #48 second, with Strakka #42 third, Pecon #39 fourth, Greaves Zytek fifth, Oak #49 sixth, Norma #44 sixth, #40 Race Performance seventh, followed by the #35 Oak Pescaolo, and then the #36 RML AD Group HPD.
Level 5's week continued to grind along slowly. After all the problems yesterday with the fuel leak, the car then ran out of fuel near Indianapolis after just 12 laps, with owner Scott Tucker in the cockpit. Better news for Aston Martin though, with a best-yet from Darren Turner of 3:48.194 to move into 21st position overall, 15th in P1. His time was eight seconds better than the car's Wednesday time.
In the overall order, with half an hour to go, Audi had re-emerged as top dog, with Allan McNish reclaiming the top slot (for the second evening anyway) with a best for the #3 R18 of 3:27.602. That was still half a second shy of Sarrazin's time provisional pole on Wednesday.
An improvement from Ayari in the #26 Signatech Oreca Nissan at 20:35 pm gave us the first definite change in pole for the evening, being enough to knock Strakka off the LMP2 top position by around half a second.
Eighteen minutes to go and suddenly it all started to hot up, certainly in LMP1. A stunning 3:26.336 from Stefan Sarrazin eclipsed his Wednesday's provisional claim to pole in the #8 Peugeot, but next lap around, an even more astonishing 3:26.272 from Marc Gene made it a Peugeot one-two. And there was the ACO aiming to peg lap times this year to 3:30!!
Ben Collins into the RML HPD for his first stint of the evening. Mike had completed about eight laps.
So, confirmed changes in pole in LMP1 and LMp2, and then also in both GT classes, at almost the same moment. Bruni slotted in a 3:58.040 in the #51 Ferrari to lay claim to GTE-Pro.In GTE-Am, the #63 Felbermayr Porsche held sway by just four one-hundredths of a second from Cioci in the #61 Ferrari 430.
Phil warned Ben about gravel across the track at Ford Chicane after a spin by the #50 Robinson Ford GT, and seconds later Andy Priaulx in the #56 caught it . . . and went straight on into the tyre wall very heavily, ripping the nose off the BMW and causing heavy front-end damage. He climbed from the car, shook his head several times, waved to the crowds and then walked away, head hung low. Not his fault, but a huge disappointment for the squad, looking for pole in GTE-Pro.
There were less than four minutes remaining when Ayari posted a new provisional pole in LMP2, setting 3:41.831, to move a second and a half clear in LMP2. Meanwhile, in the RML #36, Ben was steadily coming to terms with his new office and the track, which has changed quite a bit since he last raced here in 1992, and setting new personal bests, topping out with a low 3:51.
Mighty excitement in the last seconds, as Sarrazin sweeps through the Ford Chicane, mildly held back by a GT Aston, to clock 3:26.156 to move even further clear, but for a matter of seconds. With 4 seconds showing on the countdown to the chequered flag, Fassler crossed the line in the #2 R18 with a 3:25.961 to snatch back provisional pole for Audi.
Finally, an improvement for Ben as well. On his very last lap, the former Stig set a new best for the #36 HPD of 3:48.765. It didn't do anything for the order in LMP2, but it certainly gave Mr Collins something to smile about!
And that was was how the second session of qualifying came to a close. Full results as follows:
The final session of qualifying for the 2011 Le mans 24 Hours began at 10:00pm, with the last shreds of daylight just sinking down behind the grandstands around the Dunlop Bridge.
That gave about fifteen minutes of prime qualifying time before the light faded and the track temperature started to fall. Several of the front runners were eager to exploit that opportunity, including Roman Dumas in the #1 Audi. In a simply stunning lap, he must have shaken those watching the screens in the Peugeot garage when he swept over the line to record a time of 3:25.799.
Confirmation came through during the break that Strakka Racing has retired the #42 HPD for the evening. Working through the night to repair the car after Nick's accident left the crew exhausted, and with a 24 hour race ahead of them Piers elected to call it a day. Jonny Kane's time from Wednesday left them on the LMP2 front row, pending any other improvers.
The bad times for Aston Martin just kept on getting worse. An incident between the #007 and the #58 Luxury Racing Ferrari at Mulsanne Corner brought out the red flags. The Ferrari appeared to have come off the worst, with a thumping nose-dive into the tyre wall. The AMR-One was extracted from the gravel and began a slow return to towards the pitlane. It finally arrived at half-ten with a rear-left puncture. Tommy reported a long trail of oil around the circuit before pitting under the red flag.
Times with half an hour gone:
The screens announced that the session would resume at 10:40, and dot on time, the lights at the end of the pitlane turned green. Session on . . .
With oven-ready tyres refitted to the #36 HPD, Tommy Erdos was back out on track in under 30 seconds.
(Apologies to anyone trying to follow us on Twitter or Facebook, but we have a bizarre connection here that allows us to upload FTP, but not interact with the Internet. It's not our fault, honest!)
Tommy radioed in at 10:45 to say that a line of oil and what may be coolant fluid has been laid down around almost the entire track, and much of it has not been treated. He returned to the pitlane, suggesting it was now impossible to set a fast pace.
With Audi drivers also complaining about the state of the track, it began to look likely that any battle for pole had been effectively ended by unfortunate circumstances.
The "HON" Erdos (according to the timing screen!) returned to the track at 10:53 for a single installation lap, mainly to re-check conditions. The team manager of the #58 Ferrari was summoned to Race Control, presumably to account for the actions of Beltoise in the Luxury Racing Ferrari.
A rare improvement occurred at 11:05 when Tom Kimber-Smith posted a new best for the Greaves Zytek of 3:43.802. Okay, only one one-hundredths of a second, but an improvement nevertheless, and with conditions as they were, some achievement. The only other car making progress was the 007 Aston, with the "under suspended sentence" Stefan Mucke in the cockpit. His new time for the AMR-One was 3:45.918, and still only good enough for 22nd overall, one slot ahead of the RML AD Group HPD.
Half an hour of additional circulating seemed to do more to clear the track than anything attempted by the marshals, and at 11:16, a new fastest lap of 3:26.738 from Treluyer in the #2 Audi proved that there was still life in the session. The lap moved him ahead of Rockenfeller (then in the #1) to regain provisional pole.
There was instant reaction from Peugeot, with the #9 coming into the pits for a new nose section, possibly with a revised aero package.
With wellover half an hour still to run, Phil Barker, team manager at RML, decided that there was no realistic chance of safely making an improvement on the best set for the #36 on Wednesday, so called it a day. Tommy clambered out of the cockpit and the team began clearing up for the night. Being prepared for a 24 hour race is more important that fighting for an extra slot on the grid.
So, no further stints for Mike or Ben, but the chances are they'll both set improved personal times in the race itself.
Elsewhere, the action continued, with Tom Kristensen hauling the #3 Audi R18 up to 4th, making it Audi, Audi, Peugeot, Audi with a quarter of an hour remaining. Much as Pagenaud puished, he could only improve on his own best, and made no impression on the Audi lockout. His, and the hopes of the rest of the Peugeot squad, didn't have their cause helped by the Race Performance #40, which went into the gravel at Post 96 with five minutes remaining.It did get going again, but left everyone just time for one more lap.
It all came to an end when Kristensen caught the edge on the run into Tetre Rouge, and went wide, across the gravel, and nudged the barriers. That effectively ended the session, with Audi on pole.
Final Qualifying Results
Following the action at Le Mans
Aside from logging in here from time to time to check our own updates, one of the best ways to follow the daily developments at Le Mans is to tune in to Radio Le Mans. John Hindhaugh and the crew will be offering live coverage
of all this evenings qualifying sessions, as well as podcasts and driver interviews from the last four days here at Le Mans.
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