Kobayashi takes pole for a Le Mans that falls between eras - The Race
WEC/Le Mans

Kobayashi takes pole for a Le Mans that falls between eras

Aug 19 2021
By Jack Benyon and Matt Beer

Kamui Kobayashi beat Brendon Hartley in another all-Toyota pole battle ahead of the 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours.

This year’s Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship are a low-key start to what is set to be a spectacular new era.

Peugeot, Audi, Porsche and Ferrari have all committed to entering the new Hypercar category, with more manufacturers rumoured to be joining them, but their programmes will not start until 2022 (Peugeot) and 2023 (the rest).

That leaves Toyota still lacking proper factory opposition, and just five cars in the top class at Le Mans this year.

One of those is a pegged-back Rebellion LMP1 car now branded as an Alpine, running in that form for one season only as a toe-in-the-water effort that it is hoped might inspire a full Alpine Hypercar commitment.

It has yet to beat the Toyotas to victory in the three WEC rounds held so far under the new rules.

The Hypercar field is completed by two entries from underdog constructor Glickenhaus.

Motor Racing Fia World Endurance Championship Wec Le Mans Practice And Qualifying Le Mans, France

With the once thriving GTE Pro field also depleted – only Porsche and Ferrari are contesting the full season, joined by Corvette at Le Mans – the LMP2 class has ended up as comfortably the most competitive.

Newly-crowned Formula E world champion Nyck de Vries and predecessor Antonio Felix da Costa, ex-Formula 1 drivers Robert Kubica, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jan Magnussen, Kevin Magnussen (father and son racing as team-mates for the first time), Paul di Resta, Roberto Merhi, Giedo van der Garde, Stoffel Vandoorne, Anthony Davidson, Will Stevens and Felipe Nasr all have seats in the 25-car pack.

The slender Hypercar entry, the quality of the LMP2 field and the smaller performance gap between the two Prototype classes under the new regulations also gives the secondary category runners a greater chance of snatching an outright win than for many years – though the Jackie Chan DC Racing team nearly did so in 2017 even when Porsche was still in LMP1 alongside Toyota.

What happened in Wednesday qualifying

Motor Racing Fia World Endurance Championship Wec Le Mans Practice And Qualifying Le Mans, France

The #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez was also fastest in a dramatic first qualifying session on Wednesday that decided who made it through to fight for pole the following day.

The bleak, overcast weather was the perfect metaphor for an incident-packed session with full course yellows and ‘slow zones’ catching out a number of drivers trying to earn the top six places in class that determined who made it into Thursday night’s ‘hyperpole’ session.

With cars mixed up in the order because of a multitude of incidents, Rahel Frey’s spin into the gravel at the Dunlop chicane created a high pressure, 10-minute last gasp opportunity for improvements.

There are only five top-class cars entered this year meaning all of them would automatically fight for pole on Thursday. However, one of them failed to make the top six with the #709 Glickenhaus of Ryan Briscoe, Romain Dumas and Richard Westbrook only going seventh fastest. On a year with more entries or with a more traditional qualifying session, it would have been a more embarrassing result.

The sister Glickenhaus car had also spent most of the session outside of the hyperpole group but Pipo Derani jumped to fourth in the closing stages.

Motor Racing Fia World Endurance Championship Wec Le Mans Test Day Le Mans, France

Da Costa was arguably the star of the day as he constantly put his LMP2 Jota-run car near the top of the outright times and was fifth fastest. Freshly crowned Formula E champion de Vries joined da Costa in the top six with a G-Drive LMP2 entry.

Elsewhere in LMP2, two of the prime United Autosport entries made it including some late heroics by Paul di Resta, but the third entry had two laps looking good enough to make the top six in the hands of Filipe Albuquerque ruined by yellow flags.

Vandoorne’s Jota entry also failed to make the top six, as did the Magnussens’ High Class Racing ORECA.

With only eight GTE/Pro cars entered this year two had to miss out on the class pole shootout, and it was the Earl Bamber/Cooper Macneil/Laurens Vanthoor Porsche and the Nicky Catsburg/Antonio Garcia/Jordan Taylor Corvette that didn’t make it.

In GTE/Am, with a much better supported entry, Ferrari Formula 1 junior Callum Ilott missed out on the top six in the Iron Lynx Ferrari by only one position, and fellow big name in a Ferrari Giancarlo Fisichella didn’t make it either.

How pole was won

Motor Racing Fia World Endurance Championship Wec Le Mans Practice And Qualifying Le Mans, France

The half-hour hyperpole session was less disrupted than practice and first qualifying had been, but did feature an early red flag after Kevin Estre crashed his works GTE Pro Porsche at Indianapolis.

Kobayashi had crashed at the same spot in the earlier practice session, but didn’t miss a beat when entrusted with hyperpole duties in the #7 car.

An early 3m23.900s banker from Kobayashi was 0.295s clear of Hartley’s best effort in the sister Toyota he shares with Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima.

Those stood as the front row times – the pair of GR010s spending the final minutes sat in the pits confident they were safe with a 1.6s margin from pole to third place.

It’s a third Le Mans pole in a row for the Kobayashi/Conway/Lopez trio, with Conway and Kobayashi having also topped qualifying in 2017 when Stephane Sarrazin was their team-mate.

The Alpine vs Glickenhaus fight ran right to the end of the session, a final effort from Olivier Pla getting the lead Glickenhaus to within a tenth of a second of Nicolas Lapierre in the third-placed Alpine.

Motor Racing Fia World Endurance Championship Wec Le Mans Practice And Qualifying Le Mans, France

Da Costa carried his LMP2 form into the decisive session, and though he didn’t outpace any Hypercars this time, he came out on top of a battle with Louis Deletraz’s Team WRT entry to top the secondary class by half a second, with Julien Canal just a tenth behind Deletraz for Panis Racing.

Da Costa shares his car with Davidson and Roberto Gonzalez, while Deletraz is teamed with Robert Kubica and Yifei Ye.

G-Drive’s #26 car beat the two United Autosports entries to fourth in LMP2.

24 Hours Of Le Mans 2021

The top three GTE Pro spots were split between the three manufacturers involved: Porsche getting pole not with its factory team but with Hub Auto Racing’s Dries Vanthoor, who headed Miguel Molina’s AF Corse Ferrari and Nick Tandy’s Corvette.

Porsche leads both GTE classes on the grid, the Dempsey-Proton team topping GTE Am in a 911 1-2-3 ahead of the GR Racing and Team Project 1 Porsches.

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