This report originally appeared on the Club Arnage Blog. Words: Dave Davis / Pictures: Kristof Vermeulen.
The Green flag for the first test session was on time at 09:00. Lapierre in the #9 was first to set a flying lap time of 3:34.244, but drivers were reporting that the track was very dirty. The session had only been green for about 15 minutes when the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari was stranded just after the Dunlop bridge bringing out a local slow zone. At the 1 hour point in LMP1 quickest was Kobayashi in the #7 Toyota 3:23.576 in LMP2 #26 G-Drive 3:31.405, GTE Pro #91 Porsche 3:57.851, GTE Am #99 4:01.314.
At 10:11 the TF Sport Aston #90 of Salih Yoluc returned slowly to pitlane with a puncture, and shortly thereafter Ho Pin Tung has final warning on track limits in the Jackie Chan DC racing Oreca #38. At 10:24 there was a brief slow zone for debris on track which turned out to be a plastic cone at the Dunlop chicane. The track had just one green when Beche put in a lap of 3:30.516 fastest in LM P2 in the #13 Valliante Rebellion. Nicolas Prost who drives the #31 Vaillante Rebellion LMP2: “We were running very well, but we’ve hit a bit of a gear change problem.”
Just before the 2 hour point at 10:50 Magnussen in the #63 Corvette went quickest in GTE Pro 3:56.876, while Cairoli in #77 Porsche quickest in GTE Am – 3:59.117. Lopez did his ten rookie laps without incident but later won himself a track limits warning in the Toyota #9.
At 11:27 Sarrazin went fastest overall with a lap of 3:23.450 in the #7 Toyota but that didn’t last long because Buemi in the #8 Toyota edged out that time with a lap in 3:23.210 just a few minutes later. At 11:49 Bernhard in Porsche #2 went to the top of the timing screen with a lap of 3:23.089 but only a few seconds later Buemi in Toyota #8 went faster still with a time of 3:22.394. Just as the session clicked over into the final hour, a black and white driving standards flag was awarded to Nathanael Berthon in #23 Ligier for repeated abuse of track limits. Black & White flag also for #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, again for abuse of track limits.
In the final hour, the leading LMP1 cars were putting in fast sectors but falling shy of completing a super quick lap. The surprise of the session was the Ford GT performance in GTE Pro langishing at the back of the class, but it is entirely possible that they are not showing their hand at test day. At 12:25 Van Eerd in the ‘Jumbo’ #29 Racing for Nederland Dallara went into the gravel at the Dunlop chicane, bringing out a local yellow while the car was recovered and rejoined.
Nakajima got into the #8 Toyota and soon improved the time for that car with a lap of 3:20.778, quickest overall thus far. Lopez then improved to 3:22.006 in the #9 Toyota, second fastest. In the closing minutes of the session, Piquet in #13 Vaillante Rebellion stopped at 1st Chicane on the Mulsanne Straight bringing out a local yellow but going again in a couple of minutes. Right before the chequered flag Negrao in the #35 Alpine was the first LMP2 under 3:30 with a time of 3:29.809.
After the lunch break the green for session 2 was at 14:00. At 14:15 #17 and #29 made contact but both cars continued. At 14:32 Kamui Kobayashi improved the time of the #7 Toyota to 3:18.319 which is faster than 2016 pole time. A few minutes later he improved again to 3:18.132/ At 15:01 Maris in #33 Eurasia was stuck in gravel at Dunlop bringing out a red flag. The track was green again at 15:11. Shortly after the restart, there was improvement for ByKolles #4 when Bonanomi put in a lap of 3:29.428, but that still put it behind the #37 LMP2. At 15:30 Thiim got into the tyres at Mulsanne corner in #95 Aston bringing out saftey cars until 15:39 – the car rejoined and returned to pitlane.
At 16:00 The sun began to peek through the clouds and the track began to warm up significantly. #50 Larbre Corvette led GTE Am with 3:58.302 from Dempsey Proton Porsche #77 a smidge behind at 3:58.449 The United Autosports #32 Ligier of Will Owen went into gravel at 2nd chicane on Mulsanne and was winched out by snatch vehicle. Corvette #64 was having an engine change during the latter part of the session (more of that later).
At 16:23 Kunimoto in Toyota #9 went into gravel at Mulsanne corner and rejoined. With 1 hour and 30 minutes remaining in the session Kazuki Nakajima put in a faster time for Toyota #8 3:20.019 still 2nd fastest overall. Buemi had an improvement 3:19.290 in Toyota #8 with the clock at 1 hour remaining, still 2nd fastest. Improvement also for Porsche #2 by Earl Bamber with 3:21.512 rising to 4th fastest ahead of the #1 Porsche.
At 17:10 #29 Racing Team Nederland stopped after Arnage Van Eerd driving. There was a local slow zone for a few minutes while the car was recovered. With 34 minutes left in the session, the #64 Corvette rejoined with Olly Gavin at the wheel after an engine change which took an impressive 1 hour 31 minutes. He quickly set a time of 3:54.701 fastest in GTE pro, leaping ahead of the factory Porsches. Meanwhile Pedro Lamy set a lap time of 3:58.250 fastest lap in GTE Am for Aston Martin #98.
Roberto Gonzales in #25 Manor stopped after Tertre Rouge bringing out a red flag with 12 minutes remaining. Reportedly it dropped oil on the track before stopping. The session clock continued to count down and remained under red flag until the scheduled finish at 18:00.
The surprise of the day was the lack of pace of the Ford GT’s. They remained at the back of the GTE Pro times in both sessions and (they say) it was genuine lack of speed. We are inclined to believe them despite considerable speculation and rumour circulating about sandbagging and BOP shenanigans. These days with the amount of data available to the ACO it would be very hard to hide such activity.