Toyota dominate - Panoz confirms - BMW show their speed
The first practice session confirmed the results of May prequalifying. It was marked by a spectacular accident when Eric van de Poele went off into the tyre barrier on the exit from Tertre Rouge which caused an interruption of almost an hour.
The Toyota GT Ones dominated both sessions with the two quickest times while Panoz showed that their May performance was no flash in the pan as David Brabham set the third fastest time overall. Given the uncertain weather most of the teams sent out their younger drivers at the start of the session to enable them to get to know the circuit and also to ensure their qualification. When practice restarted after being stopped between 19h42 and 20h55 the race for pole was on. In May Ukyo Katayama had already made mincemeat of Bernd Schneider's 1988 pole (3 mn 35.544 secs in his Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM) but it was Englishman Martin Brundle who really set the track alight with a lap in 3 mn 29.930 secs (the first sub 3 mn 30 secs lap since 1993) closely followed by Thierry Boutsen in the second of the Toyotas in 3 mn 30.801 secs.
Toyota : The red and white GT Ones were consistently the quickest cars all throughout the two sessions and look well set to monopolise the front row unless there is a major upset during today's practice. In no.1, Martin Brundle set his provisional pole time at exactly 22h00 beating Boutsen by almost a second. Emmanuel Collard then went out in the pace setting Toyota but crashed at Arnage where the car remained for the rest of the evening. As for no.3 in the hands of Katayama-Tsuchiya-Suzuki it was running third behind the its team mates but finished practice down in 7th place. "The car is easier to drive than last year," said Boutsen, "it's even more competitive than in prequalifying both from an engine and handling point of view."
Panoz : The new LMP-1 Roadster S created a sensation during prequalifying when David Brabham set the second-quickest time overall. The American team showed that this was no flash in the pan as David ended the session in third spot behind the 2 Toyotas with a lap in 3 mn 33.711 secs leaving Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Nissan gasping in his wake!. His team-mate Eric Bernard explained this by the very hard work put into the car's development by a very motived team and also by the fact that the roadster is an evolution of last years GT1. "Our car is both quick and reliable as, like the Toyotas, it is the result of continuous development. Mercedes are here with new cars which maybe explains their difficulties." The second Panoz in the hands of Magnussen-O'Connell-Angelelli was not quite so quick and finished the session 3th fastest in 3 mn 39.519 secs.
BMW : The no.17 BMW V12 LMR driven by J.J. Lehto-Tom Kristensen-Jorg
Muller was fourth-quickest overall and first of the Europeans, just ahead
of the Mercedes-Benz driven by Bouchut and Schneider, setting its time
of 3 mn 34.109 secs at almost exactly the same moment as the Panoz went
Mercedes-Benz : The cars bearing the three-pointed star surely expected better than 5th, 6th and 8th places the times being set by Bouchut, Schneider and Webber respectively. At the start of the session no'5 was driven by 2 newcomers Nick Heidfeld and Peter Drumbeck to familiarise them with the circuit. Visually, they look more like the 'Silver Arrows' than ever as their gleaming bodywork carries virtually no advertising. In tonight's session they will be out to prove that they can make it onto the first row and the man who could upset the Toyota hierarchy is Nick Heidfeld !.
Audi : Since prequalifying the Audis seem have made the biggest improvement in terms of performance. The two spiders nos 7 and 8 in the hands of Alboreto-Capello-Aiello and Pirro-Biela-Theys finished the evening in 7th and 8th places respectively lapping in 3 mn 37.140 secs and 3 mn 37.440 secs without running into any major problems. If they confirm in the race then a rostrum finish on Sunday is not out of the question for Reinhold Joest's team. The coupés entered by Audi UK (no.9 Johansson-Ortelli-Apt and no.10 Wallace-Weaver-McCarthy) also ended the session just under a second apart but down in 22nd and 23rd positions.
Nissan : The Nissan R391s and the C52 Courage using the same engine seem to lack top speed, a problem that the technicians will have to try and overcome between now and Saturday. The works effort has been reduced to one car after Eric van de Poele's accident yesterday in no.23. It happened at 19h45 when the car went straight on at Tertre Rouge probably due to a blocked accelerator. It hit the tyre wall head-on and then the guardrail which was pushed back almost 1 metre!. The driver was removed from the car suffering from a fracture of the 16th vertebra. The quickest of the Nissans (Montoyama-Krumm-Comas) ended up in 14th place just ahead of the C52 Courage of Cottaz-Goossens-Ekblom.
The other LMP1s
Lola : Fastest of the Lolas was no.25, the Dams entry which,
driven by Tinseau-Montagny-Terrien, ended up 12th overall. No.27 (Saldana-Orbell-de
Radiguès) powered by Ford was 17th just ahead of the other LolaJudd
in the hands of Lammers-Kox-Coronel.
Chrysler : In the LMGTS category there were no surprises with the works Oreca entries dominating their rivals. Quickest of the big red, blue and white cars were Beretta-Wendlinger-Dupuy who lapped in 3 mn 56.588 secs followed by their team-mates Archer-Bell-Duez (3mn 59.305 secs). Best of the rest was no.56, the Chamberlain entry of Amorin-Hugenholtz-Seiler.
Porsche : "The 911 GT2s have seen better days and they're now out-dated." Jean-Luc Chereau summed up the Porsche teams' position perfectly in the LMGTS Category. Only the Roock Racing entry of Claudia Hurtgen (only lady driver at the start this year) - Arhlé-Voss managed to get among the herd of Vipers by setting 5th quickest time in the category (4 mn 2.959 secs). The Konrad-Kitchak-Slater and Jarier-Bourdais-de Thoisy 911s finished the session just behind the Belmondo entred Viper driven by Clérico-Martinolle-Lagniez which ended up 6th fastest in the category.
The LM GT Category was a family affair among Porsches and at present
only the 996GT3s of AlzenHuismann-Riccatelli and Müller-Wollek-Breyner
are in the race as the 993 RSRS of Perrier-Ricci-Nourry and Gleason-McQuillan-Neugarten
have failed to met the 125% qualifying minima rule.