Audi has drawn first blood in the battle to secure victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours after setting the pace during practice for the La Sarthe classic.
With the global economic downturn having led to the cancellation of the normal weekend of testing prior to the event, the opening day of running on Le Mans week was turned into a six hour long free practice session, with the grid to be decided during qualifying on Thursday.
The quickest times during the practice session were set during the opening hour, as the onset of rain in France forced the team's to instead turn focus to wet weather testing ahead of the weekend, while also ensuring that any rookie drivers completed the required laps to ensure their participation in the race.
At the head of the pack, defending champions Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen posted the quickest time at the wheel of the #1 Audi R15 – McNish stopping the clock with a best time of 3min 30.708secs. That allowed the Scot to end the session just ahead of the Audi Sport North America entered car of Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Werner, while the first of the Peugeots – the #9 of David Brabham, Marc Gene and Alex Wurz – completed the top three. The session wasn't without problems for the closed coupe machine however, with Brabham forced to return slowly to the pits mid-way through with a clutch issue.
The Pescarolo Sport-run Peugeot slotted into fourth place ahead of the #8 Peugeot, which produced some impressive wet weather lap times in the hands of Toro Rosso Formula One driver Sebastien Bourdais. The third of the factory Audis completed the top six, while the quickest petrol powered car was the Pescarolo Judd in seventh. The car was another to hit drama during the session however, with Joao Barbosa hitting the barrier at the Porsche curves while lapping a GT2 Ferrari.
The #008 Aston Martin was eighth quickest ahead of the #007, while the third factory Peugeot completed the top ten. Nicolas Minassian, Pedro Lamy and Christian Klien enjoyed a busy evening, completing more than 1000km of running during the six hours – the equivalent of a Le Mans Series race.
As expected, the Porsche RS Spyder was the car to beat in LMP2, with the Team Essex car emerging with the fastest time ahead of last year's class winner – now in the hands of Navi Team Goh. The pair were the only non-LMP1 cars to post top 20 overall times and were well clear of the Quifel-ASM Zytek, which was nearly ten seconds off the pace in third.
The only major incident on track befell one of the LMP2 teams, after Jean de Pourtales lost the rear of the KSM Lola Mazda at the Dunlop Curve and went off backwards into the tyre wall, damaging the left rear of the car. Despite heavy impact with the barriers, the car returned to the track later in the session.
Fellow LMP2 runners Barazi-Epsilon completed only limited running after stopping on track with fuel pressure problems, while the GAC Racing Zytek was late starting its programme due to a clutch problem.
As anticipated, the factory Corvettes topped the times in GT1, with the #63 leading the way from the #64. That came despite a trip into the gravel at the Dunlop Curve for Antonio Garcia, who was one of a number of drivers to have brief excursions off the circuit in the challenging conditions. The Jetalliance Aston Martin – which itself went off track on more than one occasion – ended up third, but the two Luc Alphand Aventures Corvettes were well off the pace having missed the best conditions of the session due to an issue with the rollcage. The JLOC Lamborghini was the only car not to set a time, stopping on track on its outlap with a driveshaft issue.
Felbermayr-Proton topped the times in GT2, where three different marques filled the top three places on the times. The team's Porsche 997 ended up ahead of the Risi Competizione Ferrari of Jaime Melo, Pierre Kaffer and Mika Salo, while there was encouragement for the Spyker team as the lone C8 Laviolette set the third quickest time.