24-Hour Le Mans 2015: Closing in
Le Mans 2015 – Free Practice – from Brian Laban
Three scenarios are possible by three o’clock on Sunday afternoon: Porsche could stretch the gap to Audi in the Le Mans all-time winners’ table, to 17-12; Audi could reel it in, to 16-13; or if both Porsche and Audi contrive to chuck the 2015 race away, the status quo would survive for at least another year – although on the evidence so far, that’s not what’s going to happen.
Whatever, Porsche will leave the 83rd Le Mans still boasting more outright wins than any other manufacturer, and a lot of people believe that’s why they’re now in the endurance fight rather than being tempted back into F1, which was obviously another option. Audi are snapping at their heels, and Porsche certainly doesn’t want to lose the honour to a cousin.
So far, it has to be said, being on the spot hasn’t given much more of a clue to the outcome than we could have had while staying in the pub. Test Day on 31 May had so few dry moments in eight hours of running that nobody really made any convincing case for their true balance of pace, strategy and reliability; and today, the first four hours of free practice had a feeling of déjà vu (a French thing) with just enough unpredictable rain on and off and here and there to keep the slicks mostly in the tyre warmers, and the lap times frustratingly above where everybody expects them to be if ever they get a proper run at it.
The smart money says that those times will be in the 3 minute mid-teens, and possibly as low as 3m 13s, which is the underlying buzz of Le Mans 2015, if a little far-fetched. But they are ridiculously quick: miserable as the Test weather was, and grubby as the circuit was, led by Porsche and Brendon Hartley they were already under last year’s pole time. Almost exactly a second covered the next five cars, Porsche, Audi, Audi, Porsche, Audi. Everybody reckoned there were whole seconds to come. The first record expected to fall is Peugeot’s 3m 18.513s qualifying lap record on this circuit configuration, from 2008 – 247.2kph; the next should be the all-time lap record on any circuit configuration – 3m 14.88s, 251.8kph, set by Hans Stuck in the Porsche 962 in 1985, pre-chicanes.
That’s how big a leap they’ve made this year, even as the rule makers increasingly turn the screw on the fuel factor. But in the big scheme of things the number is much more important than who delivers it. Because you’d need to be very insular indeed not to notice that the ACO is getting very worried indeed about how fast these cars are actually going now – and it will be the cars that have to be slowed down, not the circuit. If Le Mans 2015 turns out to be the fastest ever, it might also be the fastest forever.
It’s a fact: everybody has got quicker again since last year, Porsche has possibly leap-frogged Audi, but not converted that into race wins in the first two outings at Silverstone and Spa, Toyota have been mugged by both of them, and Nissan’s time is yet to come.
For what it’s worth, Porsche topped free practice with a 3m 21.362, from Audi’s 21.950 best. 2.1 seconds covered the six Porsches and Audis. In five minutes time, the first two hours of qualifying proper begin, up to midnight. The sky is finally clear, the wind has dropped, it’s cool and calm. Neel Jani’s first flying qualifying lap is an astounding 3m 16.887. Just possibly, we’re about to see Le Mans history being re-written before midnight.