The #14 Porsche Team LMP1 car driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb took pole position for Saturday’s 6 Hours of Bahrain in the dusk at the Bahrain International Circuit. The biggest story of the qualifying session arguably came before the cars were even on track, with news that last season’s championship-winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro would not be taking part after damage to the car’s chassis. The #1 car will start tomorrow’s race from the back of the LMP1 field.
As race director Eduardo Freitas opened the pit lane for the start of the LMP qualifying session, there was no messing about among the LMP1 entries. The #8 and #7 Toyotas driven by Anthony Davidson and Alex Wurz elbowed their way to the front of the field on their out laps, but it was Porsche driver Neel Jani in the #14 car who quickly showed he had the ultimate one-lap pace.
Jani set a blistering 1.41.897 on his first flying lap, which proved to be the fastest of the session. After the first round of laps in the FIA WEC’s unique two-driver, four-lap-average qualifying system, it was Jani who led the #8 Toyota of Davidson by over half a second on average.
With the Bahrain International Circuit notoriously hard on tyres and only one set permitted for qualifying, the key to securing pole position was who could maintain the pace over the four times laps. It appeared as though the Toyotas, now in the hands of Sébastian Buemi and Mike Conway, could outperform the Porsches over four laps, with Buemi within two seconds of his teammate Davidson’s quickest times and Conway only a second back on Wurz. However, a final dash by Dumas in the #14 car saw the Frenchman set a 1.43.983 and push the #14 Porsche two tenths clear of the #8 Toyota with a 1.43.145 four-lap average. Brendon Hartley rounded off the top three with a 1.44.191 average, followed by the #7 just a tenth behind and the #2 Audi of André Lotterer and Marcel Fässler struggling for single-lap pace and 2.5 seconds down on pole.
The battle for LMP2 was just as hard-fought, with the Dunlop-shod #26 Ligier JS P2 of G-Drive Racing driven by Roman Rusinov and Olivier Pla making the early running. It led at the halfway stage, with the KCMG Oreca 03 driven by Alexander Imperatori followed in second and championship-leading SMP Racing #37 in third. With two of the four times laps in the bag, just half a second covered the top four.
Rusinov handed the #26 car over to Pla, who proceeded to match the Russian’s times on worn tyres and secure G-Drive Racing’s sixth pole from seven so far this season. Just before the time ran down on the session, Maurizio Mediani in the #27 pipped teammate Viktor Shaitar by under a tenth, pushing the KCMG Oreca of Richard Bradley down to fifth on the grid.
Earlier on in the evening, the GTE cars had played out an exciting qualifying session in the dusk conditions. Right from the off, Stefan Mücke in the #97 Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage looked to have the bit between his teeth, setting the fastest two-lap average of 1.58.471. Just before handing over his #51 Ferrari 458, Gianmaria Bruni managed to improve his two-lap average to 1.58.474, an incredible 0.003 seconds behind the Aston. In GTE Am, it was a similar story, with the all-Danish #95 Aston Martin Racing heading the rest of the field and mixing it up with the Pro cars.
Darren Turner carried on where Stefan Mücke had left off in #97, coming within one second of the German’s times. James Calado in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari could only come within half a second of the dominant Aston Martin. Turner and Mücke called it a day after recording a 1.58.805 four-lap average and watched from the pits to see whether Toni Vilander in the #51 had the pace to steal pole. The Finn was on the ragged edge in search of that vital single point awarded for pole position. However, a slight mistake out of the final turn on his final flying lap saw Vilander run wide and fall short of the Aston by 0.270 on the four-lap average.
It was a session to forget for Porsche Team Manthey, with both cars struggling for pace, especially on worn tyres. The #91 of Jörg Bergmeister, Richard Lietz and Nick Tandy finished the day in fifth position, 0.7 seconds down on the #97 Aston Martin, with Makowicki/Pilet #92 911 RSR down in sixth place.
In GTE Am, the #95 Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier-Hanson and Nicki Thiim took pole by just one tenth from their teammates in the #98 car for their third pole of the season. The Astons appear to have the pace on the Ferraris and Porsches, with the #61 AF Corse entry back in third but almost half a second down on four-lap average. The #75 Prospeed Competition car was the quickest of the Porsches in GTE Am but it and the Proton Competition #88 entry suffered from the same kind of tyre problems that befell the works entries in GTE Pro.
Image source: Walter Schruff