The 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans finally kicked off today as the 56 starters rolled out for the first practice session of the weekend. The weather over the course of the four-hour session was any motor racing team’s nightmare, with spells of rain hitting different parts of the circuit intermittently. In contrast to previous years, none of the factory LMP1 entries suffered any major issues, but a serious incident for the #48 Murphy Prototypes car two hours in put paid to any hopes the Irish-entered team had of completing more running. The shunt in the Porsche Curves resulted in a 30-minute red flag period while barriers were repaired. The damp conditions did make it tricky for cars up and down the field, with many unplanned excursions into the gravel, particularly in LMP2 and GTE.
It’s first blood to Porsche then in this battle royale of a Le Mans 24 Hours. The red #17 919 Hybrid set the fastest time of the day, a 3:21.632, at the dryest point of the session. Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard showed why the German marque are considered favourites for pole position. Half a second behind the Porsche was the #8 Audi of Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis, while the other two factory Porsches rounded off the top 4. Toyota once again didn’t have the edge on pace, but pole position certainly isn’t on the Japanese manufacturer’s agenda for this weekend. The #1 car of Buemi/Davidson/Nakajima was 7th and the sister #2 car of Wurz/Sarrazin/Conway 8th. The Rebellion R-One of Heidfeld/Prost/Beche was 9th, seven seconds back on the polesitter.
Nissan continued to work through their LMP1 programme, and all three cars slotted in between the Rebellions and the ByKolles CLM P1. Their fastest times of 3:40s were almost 20 seconds down on the leading Porsches, but again Nissan will be quietly working through their plan in the run-up to Saturday’s race. However, whatever way you spin it, it will have been a disappointing session for the Nissan crew.
The normally close-fought LMP2 category was headed up by the KCMG Oreca 05 of Lapierre/Bradley/Howson with a 3:39.897 and a monstrous 1.5-second advantage over the second-place OAK Racing entry driven by Laurens Vanthoor, Kévin Estre and Chris Cumming. Many drivers found the changeable conditions difficult, and the SMP Racing cars, the Greaves Motorsport entry and one of the Extreme Speed Motorsports cars all had unwanted trips through the sand. Mark Patterson in the Murphy Prototypes car caused a 30-minute red flag period in the middle of the session after losing it coming in to the Porsche Curves and making contact with the barriers with the right-rear of the car. The LMP2 machine was lifted back to the pits on the back of a flatbed and was unable to complete any more running in the session.
The fight in GTE-Pro was, for a time, as close as expected. But in the drying conditions Richie Stanaway in the #99 car posted a 3:55.895 to lead the times after the first session. The #64 Corvette of Milner/Gavin/Taylor finished first practice in second position, 1.6 seconds down on the Aston Martin. In third was the second of the three Aston Martins, the #97 entry driven by Stefan Mücke, Darren Turner and Rob Bell.
There was a clear leader at the end of the four hours, with the GTE-Am favourite #98 Aston Martin of Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda and Paul Dalla Lana setting a 3:58.783. Lamy’s time was an incredible 3 seconds faster than the next car, the Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR. Klaus Bachler in the sister car, the #88 Porsche, finished the session in third position.
With rain forecast for tomorrow evening, this evening’s two-hour qualifying session could be the only chance the cars get to complete a dry qualifying run. Fans could be in for some fireworks.
Image: WEC-Magazin (Walter Schruff)