Johnny Herbert blew the field away in the opening qualifying session for this weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours, setting a lap of 3min 34.907secs to lead his nearest rival - the Team Goh Audi - by just over two seconds.

Herbert's Audi UK Team Veloqx R8 waited until the very last lap of the two-hour 'evening' session before setting its time, moving to the top of a timesheet dominated by the pre-race favourites. Only the Champion Audi failed to complete a clean sweep for the venerable R8, slipping to fifth spot at the death as the first of Jan Lammers' two Racing for Holland Domes claimed fourth spot.

Ahead of the black-and-white machine, Herbert's Audi was followed by the Goh example and the sister Veloqx car shared by fellow Briton Allan McNish, Frank Biela and Pierre Kaffer. The latter started the session with a bodywork-crunching off that required a brief stop for repairs, but was lapping quickly again soon after.

The Champion car was comfortably ahead of the Pescarolo of Soheil Ayari, Eric Comas and Benoit Treluyer, which fared a lot better than its sister car, which occupied 45th spot after a handful of relatively slow laps.

The potent Zytek completed its best lap in the hands of David Brabham, but was good enough only for seventh spot as it struggled with handling and aerodynamic problems, and wound up just ahead of the Rollcentre Dallara, Kondo Dome and the similar RfH entry of Tom Coronel and ex-F1 pilots Justin Wilson and Ralph Firman, which suffered clutch problems.

Werner Lupberger was the first man out of the pits, briefly putting the bio-ethanol fuelled Nasamax at the head of the times, but his mark soon succumbed to the Audi charge, led initially by Kaffer's #8 car. Lammers briefly interrupted the R8 domination, but was equally quickly subsumed by the German cars. Champion's JJ Lehto, Team Goh's Seiji Ara and Veloqx's Jamie Davies all took turns at the top of the timesheets, before the letter handed over to team-mate Herbert...

The LMP2 class for smaller prototypes was headed by the # 31 'works' Courage of French threesome Jonathan Cochet, Jean-Marc Gounon and Christophe Tinseau, which clocked a best of 3min 46.020secs to claim eleventh position overall. The next best car in class was the similar Epilson entry, but the Derlot/Jeannette/Pickering crew was fully eleven seconds adrift.

Olivier Beretta topped the GTS category at 3min 54.359secs, leading throughout the two hours along with team-mates Oliver Gavin and Jan Magnussen. The #63 sister car of Ron Fellows/Johnny O'Connell/Max Papis was four places and four seconds further back, separated by the best of the two Prodrive Ferraris, which survived a blow-out and trip through the gravel. The faster of the two Taurus prototypes and the second-placed LMP2 car also filled the gap. The second Prodrive entry, shared by Colin McRae along with Darren Turner and Rickard Rydell was fractionally slower than the Fellows Corvette.

America also held the upper hand in the GT class, with Jorg Bergmeister's late effort in the White Lightning entry claiming top spot at 4min 09.679secs. The German driver proved just to good for the best of the Ferrari 360s, with the JMB car lapping a couple of seconds slower in the hands of Stephane Daoudi. Alex Caffi reported a gearbox problem in the #83 Seikel Porsche, while the 'better' of the Freisinger entries was also further down the order then anticipated.

Although the second Pescarolo car and the Intersport LMP2 entry struggled to lap competitively, they both at least completed a lap of the Sarthe circuit - which is more than could be said of the #11 Panoz. The American car was apparently still waiting for parts and opted to sit out the session.