By Andrew Cotton.

Johnny Herbert emerged from the eight hours of qualifying for this year's Le Mans 24-hours with his first ever pole position in the French endurance classic.

The Briton scored his first pole since his horrific F3000 crash at Brands Hatch when he set fastest time at Monza in May, and backed that up with another here.

Allan McNish qualified second, but his fastest time was set with a problem in the injectors that robbed him of power. The team changed the engine in little more than two hours, and he returned to the track with just 25-minutes remaining to finalise the race set-up.

David Brabham had a mighty lap to top the time sheets in the first of Thursday's sessions, the Zytek setting a 3m 33.923s lap despite the high downforce configuration. No low-downforce set-up has yet been designed for the car, but it did allow the Aussie to take the Porsche Curves flat out. "I haven't had a clear lap since, oh, I don't know when," he said, accepting third overall with good grace.

Tom Kristensen set off on qualifying tyres at the start of the second session but met with traffic and could not better his fourth position time. "I was given one shot, and that was fair enough," said the Dane, who is aiming for his sixth win at Le Mans and continue his run of victories this century, having won every 24-hours and the 1000kms in November since 2000.

Sebastien Bourdais improved his time in the Pescarolo Courage to take fifth, and bump the Audi of Marco Werner, JJ Lehto and Emanuele Pirro down to sixth. That car couldn't take advantage of the better track conditions this evening as the team found it had a problem with the front shock absorbers. Werner improved to a 3m 34.927s on hard qualifying rubber just seconds before the chequer flag at midnight.

The Courage of Alexander Frei, Jean-Marc Gounon and Sam Hancock set fastest time in the LMP2 class, Gounon having set a time of 3m 41.126s, ten seconds clear of the Belmondo Courage. Hancock signed to drive the car so late that he was forced to set his qualifying laps without a seat. "It was more important to get out and qualify than it was to get that comfortable," he said.

The story of the GTS class was far more exciting. Rickard Rydell initially snatched pole position time from the Corvettes, but Oliver Gavin snatched it back in the dying moments of the third session. He was the only man to break into the 3m 49s and his position looked assured as Tomas Enge had backed his Ferrari 550 Maranello into the wall at the Porsche Curves. The Czech had made a mistake, and it looked like a costly one.

The Prodrive team took the Ferrari and repaired it so well that Enge was sent back out to complete the job that he had started. The contrite fellow obliged, setting a 3m 49.438s to oust Gavin by three tenths of a second.

The White Lightning Porsche has been the class of the field in the GT category, setting a time of 4m 07.394s, a second clear of the JMB Ferrari 360 Modena. A minor off during the second session under the Dunlop bridge was the only misdemeanour and the team is very confident of a good result this weekend.

All of the drivers have qualified within the time limit, including Nikolaj Fomenko in the Freisinger Motorsport Porsche before the Russian's engine gave way. Frank Mountain also qualified well within the time limit despite a racing career that has lasted just 14 months. He will drive the Cirtek Motorsport Ferrari 360 Modena with Rob Wilson and Hans Hugenholotz.