With Ford and Chip Ganassi fielding both the two U.S.-based cars – the Le Mans-winning #66, and the team car, #67 and the two European based Ford GTs, #68 and #69, it was clear from the start that following the less-than-spectacular debut of the new GT at the 2016 running of the Rolex24 they were serious about winning for this year.
And following Thursday’s qualifying it appears they are ready for the challenge, bagging first, second, third and sixth in the 11-car field in the afternoon session.
Joey Hand, one of the drivers who won at Le Mans, grabbed pole in the #66 car setting a 1:43.473 lap time. “We feel like we’re more prepared this year,” he said. And how does he feel about the fact that his central competition may be his three teammates? “Well,” he said, “you just want to be the fastest bullet in the gun!”
Just behind Hand was Britain’s Richard Westbrook clocking in a 1:43.704 in the #67 car. Frenchman Olivier Pla in the #68 took third spot with a best lap of 1:43.987. Pla’s set the time on his fourth tour around the circuit, which was lucky, as he later spun off the track and sat in the grass for most of the session.
The first non-Ford GT was the fourth place #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, with a lap of 1:44.121 set by by Toni Vilander. Realising how tough the battle with the Fords will be Vialnder said “We have a strong lineup of drivers, and we’re looking forward to the race. We won Petit Le Mans last year and everything we have is the same or better. We’re the lonely riders – the only Ferrari in the class.”
The GT Le Mans class is mechanically much the same as it was in 2016, with one major exception. The #911 and #912 Porsche 911 RSRs run by the Porsche GT Team are all-new, with the most significant change being a shift from the traditional 911 rear-engine configuration to more of a mid-engine layout.
The rest of the cars – the Ford GT, Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, BMW M6 GTLM and the Ferrari 488 GTE are expected to benefit from having at least a year of competition behind them.
The Porsches were quick, but not quick enough: American Patrick Pilet was fifth in the #911 car, and new-to-Porsche, Frenchman Kevin Estre, was eighth in class in the #912.
In the GT Daytona class it was Ferrari, Ferrari and Aston Martin. The front row in the class will be the #51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3, courtesy of Alessandro Pier Guidi, whose best lap was 1:47.099. “Ferrari and the team did a great job for me,” said Pier Guidi. “I’m here for them.” He was not able to make pre-season testing at Daytona, so the pole win was impressive.
Close behind – very close, in fact – was the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Alessandro Balzan who, with co-driver Christina Nielsen, won the 2016 WeatherTech Championship season GTD title. The veteran Balzan’s best lap was 1:47.117, which he set in a Hail-Mary last lap that nearly earned him the top spot. “Scuderia Corsa gave me a really good car for qualifying, Balzan said. “There’s a good energy here for the team.”
Third was the #98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage, driven by Marco Sorensen to a lap of 1:47.734. He was followed by the #59 Porsche 911 GT3 R driven by Matteo Cairoli, the #11 Lamborghini Huracán of Christian Engelhart, and the #29 Audi R8 LMS GT3 piloted by Connor De Phillippi.
The new Michael Shank Racing Acura NSXs were seventh and ninth. The similarly new 3GT Racing Lexus RCFGT3s were 13th and 20th. And the three Mercedes AMG GT3s – while not an all-new car, are new to the GT Daytona class – were 18th, 19th and 24th in the field of 27 entries.