Sunny skies and balmy temperatures nudging the 30°C mark greeted the 62 cars heading out for the first free practice session of the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans today. With just one three-hour period on the track before qualifying later in the day, this all-important session was vital to get the cars into shape before that 60-minute quest to make Thursday’s Hyperpole.
Nine-time winner Tom Kristensen waved the green flag at 14:00 local time to signal the start of the first free practice session. Frenchman Loïc Duval in the Peugeot TotalEnergies #94 Peugeot 9X8 led the cars out of the pit lane and onto the 13.626-km circuit. With sub-3.30 laps the benchmark for the Hypercar field, Duval was the first to hit the target on his second lap with a time of 3:28.386, a time eclipsed merely seconds later by José María López in the #7 Toyota GR010-Hybrid (3:28.290). Interestingly, in the opening five laps, five Hypercars had already bettered the fastest lap on Test Day (3:29.504 clocked by the Ferrari AF Corse #51 Ferrari 499P), a sure-fire indication that matters are now getting serious.
In an action-packed first hour, JMW Motorsport’s #66 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, the fastest LMGTE Am car on Sunday’s Test Day, went off at the end of its third lap when Louis Prette came a cropper in the Ford chicane. Both Peugeots pitted simultaneously after the #93 car stopped on exiting the pit lane and the sister car went through the gravel at the Forest Esses. The Ford Chicane also saw Olli Caldwell in the Alpine Elf Team #35 Oreca 07-Gibson suffer the same fate as Prette.
The red flag was unfurled half-way through the three-hour session when Steven Thomas in Tower Motorsports’ #13 Oreca 07 ploughed into the stricken Aston Martin Vantage AMR of D’Station Racing (#777). Casper Stevenson in the LMGTE Am challenger had collided with the barrier on exiting the Forest Esses, leaving the car abreast to the oncoming traffic. The stoppage lasted some 30 minutes.
HARTLEY LAYS DOWN A MARKER
Kamui Kobayashi limbered up during the red-flag period to get into qualifying mode. The Japanese speed ace was first to dip under 3:28 on his first hot lap when the session resumed with less than an hour to go. Porsche Penske Motorsport made a move in the latter stages with the #75 Porsche 963 moving up into second spot in the overall standings, Felipe Nasr going round in 3:28.150 on the car’s 20th lap. The position was short-lived as Brendon Hartley in the #8 Toyota jumped to the top with a time of 3:27.742. Earl Bamber also broke through the 3:28 barrier with 12 minutes to go in the #2 Cadillac V-Series.R after being held up by traffic on a number of promising laps earlier in the session.
In the LMP2 class,
the cards were dealt early in the session with the JOTA #28 Oreca 07 and COOL Racing’s #37 car clocking the fastest time on just their second lap. In the LMGTE Am class, however, GMB Motorsport’s Marco Sørensen in the #42 Aston Martin Vantage flew out of the traps after the enforced break, clocking the fastest time in 3:55.020, relegating the GR Racing Porsche to second place in the timesheets.
Former Formula One world champion Jenson Button in the Hendrick Motorsports’ NASCAR Garage 56 entry also made up for lost time on rejoining the track after the red-flag period. He shaved over two seconds off the car’s previous best that Button himself had recorded shortly before the hold-up. Despite running outside the official classification, the team entering the modified Chevrolet Camaro ZL.1 is showing that it is not here just for fun.
A second red flag with merely minutes to go put an early end to the session. The #33 Chevrolet Corvette C8.R went off the track at the exit from Tertre Rouge.
A striking feature of the session was the very high number of lap times scratched out due to track limits being encroached. With a new set of tools at their disposal, the officials are letting nothing go.
The teams now have less than two hours to tweak their settings or patch up their machines ready for qualifying at 19:00 local time.