The 71st Le Mans 24 Hours
Wednesday Qualifying Roundup

The timing of the Qualifying sessions at Le Mans is such that some of us need a night's sleep - even a brief night's sleep - to take in what we have just seen.

Look at this comparison between 2002 and 2003 qualifying times (so far):


Rinaldo Capello Audi R8 3:29.905
Tom Kristensen Bentley Speed 8 3:32.843


Tomas Enge Ferrari 550 3:54.091
Tomas Enge Ferrari 550 3:53.278


Lucas Luhr Porsche 911 GT3-RS 4:10.803
Sascha Maassen Porsche 911 GT3-RS 4:07.996


Mark Blundell MG-Lola 3:33.254
John Nielsen DBA4-03S 3:44.333.

So despite smaller restrictors, the GT and GTS cars are quicker than a year ago. The 675s are so far nowhere near last year's MG-Lola best times, while Tom Kristensen's provisional pole is markedly quicker than the Bentley managed in 2002, and inching towards Rinaldo Capello's pole last June. The ACO are apparently concerned that the cars are again very close to the 3:30 mark, a time that M. Poissenot tells Andrew Cotton is their benchmark for slowing the cars down (again).

Alex Job wa surprised at the time Jorg Bergmeister set at the Test Day, but very pleased that Sascha Maassen was quicker (and quickest) last night. The 4:07.996 - "That's a neat time, as we're running a Porsche 996" - was set with a "slight handling imbalance". Clearly there could be the prospect of an even quicker GT time. Sascha Maassen spent the whole of the first session in the AJR / Petersen Porsche, working away at the set-up. It was appropriate that he should stay in the car he knew for the '10 pm blast', and as of nine o'clock this morning, the AJR plan for the day wasn't clear. The mechanics were expecting to change the engine for the race unit, but Alex Job had had a re-think, and was inclined not to put up to another four hours on the race engine this evening.

Will AJR try and go faster this evening? If the Wednesday engine stays in, there's an opportunity to do so, but the first task will be to refine the set-up. "If someone goes faster, they do," said the Team Owner.

Marc Lieb will definitely be out to go faster than his 4:10 in the Orbit car.

Why are the Ferrari 360s slower than the Porsches in a straight line, Alex Job? "The five valve engine is less suited to running with restrictors than the Porsche four valve." He also made the point that Ferrari put less effort into the GT / N-GT effort than do Porsche.

We were discussing relative speeds, 2002 versus 2003.....

Tomas Enge found eight tenths of a second last night, compared to his 2002 GTS pole time - and admitted that maybe he could have gone fractionally quicker. Did anyone expect to see the top GTS cars going so quickly? Are the Corvettes closer to the Ferraris on race pace than Wednesday's qualifying times suggest?

Top speeds: we were keen to get hold of top speed figures from the Test Day, but the ACO was reluctant to release them. The best we have so far are the speeds approaching the braking point for the Dunlop Curve. Here are a selected few examples.

#15 Dome 286 kph, #8 Bentley 285, #12 Panoz 283, #9 Kondo Dome (!) 283, #13 Courage 283, #5 Goh Audi 281....with the other two privateer Audis in the 274-276 range.

The two Veloqx-Prodrive Ferraris were unsurprisingly fastest in GTS, at 267 kph, with the Corvettes at 261 and 257, split by the Konrad Saleen.

AJR and Orbit reached 247/246 kph, with the #94 Risi Ferrari on 238 kph. The 4:12 for this car is likely to be its qualifying time: that's the limit for a Ferrari 360 at Le Mans.

So what's in store for Thursday evening? Audi Sport UK are happy - "very happy" - with Frank Biela's best Audi time, but we suspect that Emanuele Pirro wants that honour tonight. It's steamy and humid now, perhaps perfect conditions for later, unless we get a shower.

Racing for Holland? Jan Lammers didn't find a clear lap last night, passing a GT car round the outside of one of the Porsche Curves, then on anothe quick lap, finding a GT car at the Ford Chicane. If the first two hours go exactly to plan, perhaps we'll see Lammers going for a 3:36 tonight, and the second row. Tristan Gommendy has been very impressive (too) in the #16 Dome, desite finding lots of traffic on each fast lap.

The biggest improvement is likely to come from the Team NASAMAX Reynard, which Werner Lupberger suggested is capable of a 3:52.

Let's finish off with the 675s, in particular the Intersport MG-Lola. Jon Field was as optimistic as ever this afternoon: he's got to be an optimist after engine trouble with the first unit, a record-breaking engine change to get out before midnight - which only led to more turbo-engine troubles, and a fire which damaged the wiring loom. A replacement loom was summoned from one of the MG Sport & Racing cars in the UK, and Intersport should be ready to go at 19.00.

WR were in all sorts of trouble with their new 900 car last night, and the #24 675 entry blew its engine towards the end of the first two hour period, but the 'little one' has the pace to do well again in the race - although all three drivers need to set their night laps. This entry has its second qualifying engine in for tonight

There are currently 42 drivers who either haven't set a time within 110% of the class best (or 125% of the first three marques overall) or haven't completed three night laps - so there could be problems for a few after midnight tonight. Six drivers haven't set a lap time at all so far: Lucas Lasserre, Duncan Dayton, Rick Sutherland, Mike Hezemans, Anthony Kumpen and Edouard Sezionale.


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