The Le Mans race week has begun and if one had to summarise it in a single word, you might say that it has been ‘changeable.’ From as early as scrutineering on Sunday 12 June through to the first Free Practice (FP1), it has rained one minute and been muggy and steamy hot the next. If you have been fortunate enough to be counted amongst the band of photographers covering this great race, then you would have spent almost as much time putting on and taking off rain gear, as photographing the cars. However, weather aside, the ‘twice around the clock’ race is without doubt the most awesome spectacle on the racing calendar in the world, period. And it would be remiss of me to wander too far from the happenings on the track.
Activities commenced on Sunday with scrutineering in the Place de la Republique, in the city of Le Mans. The cars were transported into the city from the circuit on the back of recovery trucks. And the streets around the Place became pedestrian walk ways as only the trucks were allowed in to despatch their loads. Under threatening clouds the scrutineering session began, and then the rain came down, which served to add some character to the day. The rest of the day was spent photographing the cars and drivers, until the last of the teams for the day had been processed. Monday saw the other half of the field being scrutinised, and so for me, the day was spent working in the media centre.
Tuesday: Drivers’ class of ‘16
Tuesday was much the same with little activity apart from the drivers’ class of ’16 photo on the start/finish line, and later some team photographs were also done on the grid.
The first track action for the WEC cars kicked off on Wednesday 15 June at 16h00, and it promised to be an exciting session as the weather was so changeable. The first practice session (FP1) was to run for four hours and was to be followed in the evening with the first qualifying session (Q1) from 22h00 to 24h00. The whole week, right from Sunday’s scrutineering, had been one of downpours and sunshine in quick succession throughout the day, with storms overnight. My first stop for photos on Wednesday was over at the Porsche Curves, on the outside of the circuit, and the cars ran for about two hours before the first downpour arrived. Moving to the inside of the circuit, I caught one of the Rebellions which ran wide at the first right-hander of the Porsche Curves, taking a detour through the sand trap…closely followed no doubt by a quick stop in the pits to check that all was right.
There was little doubt about the fact that the Porsche LMP1s were going to be the quickest, and they certainly looked good. One can often tell when standing track-side, how well the cars are running, whether they are on the ragged edge or not, but the Porsches and Toyotas certainly looked convincing. That is not to say that the Audis looked any less convincing, because they didn’t, but twice the no.8 Audi appeared to lose power in the Ford Chicane right in front of me, only to regain it again at the beginning of the start/finish straight. All of which was a bit worrying because on both occasions the car had gone beyond the pit lane entrance. The session ran largely without incident apart from the fire onboard the ByKolles car around mid-session, but the session was later red flagged 13 minutes early when another car went off.
The Wednesday evening qualifying got off to a prompt start and this time I spent the whole two hours in the pit lane. This is a dangerous environment, and one needs to have eyes in the back of your head in order to know what is coming up behind you while photographing and looking forward.
The great part about being in the pit lane during this time is that you can see how quickly the teams work at carrying out a driver change, tyre change, or if it is something requiring a fix in the garage. Usually if it is the latter on say one of the team’s two cars, then pretty soon after that they will bring the second car in to effect the same repair on that vehicle before it costs them valuable time by way of a breakdown on the circuit. It appeared that all three top manufacturers in the LMP1 class carried out this procedure at different times during this session. At the close of play at midnight, it was the Porsches that held the top two positions, followed by the two Toyotas, with the two Audis behind them.
However, one should perhaps not read too much into this line-up because Audi have not always posted the fastest times in the Q1 sessions this year, and have come back strongly in the final qualifying and more importantly during the race itself, where it really matters. I was chatting to a good friend who has been around race cars and circuits for more years than he cares to remember. He pointed out that this Le Mans event may see an unexpected upset in LMP1, which just happens to be what I was also thinking. His justification for this comment is based upon the fact that this race has become, in the last decade or so, more of a 24-hour sprint than an endurance event. The effect of this is that if one of the top contenders has a problem that needs extended repairs in the garage, this would surely rule that car out of contention. In years gone by, even an hour-long gearbox repair or some complex component replacement would not necessarily rule a team out of the running.
This, combined with the fact that there are 60 cars on the track this year (instead of 55 cars), increases the number of required passing moves and it also introduces the possibility of contact with a greater number of slower runners. This brings into the equation the possibility of the likes of Rebellion challenging for a podium place, should their race go off without a hitch.
And so to the Thursday afternoon Q2 session, which started in the dry, but the threat of heavy rain was ever-present. At 19h00 the cars got underway and I was stationed out at Indianapolis waiting for the cars to appear. As the skies grew darker and more threatening, Porsche’s Q1 times were looking increasingly safer, which just goes to show that if you rely on the later qualifying sessions to improve your time, it just may not happen. Porsche did the same thing last year when Neel Jani set the pole sitting time in the first session. This time though, it was Romain Dumas who did the honours.
As the session progressed the rain did indeed start, eventually developing into a steady downpour, first around the northern part of the circuit (Tertre Rouge) and then pretty much over the whole circuit. The session finished without Porsche’s times being threatened in any way. The only change at the top of the leader board was where the two Audis swapped position, with the no.7 taking fifth and the no.8 in sixth place.
A break of an hour saw the Q3 night session get underway at 22h00. But almost as soon as the cars got going, so the rain intensified. In fact it got so heavy that 30 minutes into the running, Q3 was red flagged.
As I am writing this, there is an hour of Q3 still remaining. Even if the cars do go out again, there is so much standing water around on many parts of the circuit that it is very unlikely that anybody will be able to challenge the Porsches. So, the likely starting order for Saturday’s race is going to be: Porsche no.2 to be followed by the no.1 Porsche. Behind them will be the two Toyotas, no.6 and no.5, and the two Audis, no.7 and no.8.
Our next report will be on the weekend where VMP will give updates directly from Le Mans. The local weather forecast is for sporadic showers for Friday-through-Sunday, so it will be just more of the same thing, which will make the racing very interesting. So the Le Mans race week has begun…
Written by: Glen Smale
Photographs by: Glen Smale & John Mountney
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