The anticipation and waiting is over. The FIA WEC cars and drivers blew the dust off the long winter and made sure it was a very Good Friday indeed at Circuit Paul Ricard today.
Fine spring conditions in the South of France welcomed the 29 cars as they took to the track and welcomed in the fifth edition of the WEC, as preparations continued for the first round at Silverstone in three weeks’ time.
The opening day was broken down in to three sessions – morning, afternoon and night, with a total of ten hours track running.
The morning session saw reigning champions Porsche Team head the times with Neel Jani stopping the clocks at 1.38.264s in the heavily revised 2016-spec Porsche 919 Hybrid. The new Toyota TS050 HYBRID placed second with Sebastien Buemi setting the time of 1m40.517s, while the Audi R18 completed the most laps of the three LMP1 frontrunners (75 laps in total) to place third, as Benoit Tréluyer set a 1m40.612s best lap.
The Rebellion Racing squad completed 131 laps with its pair of LMP1 Privateer Rebellion R-One AER cars to place 1-2 in the class ahead of the ByKolles CLM P1/01-AER, which was driven by new recruit Oliver Webb.
In LMP2, Alpine had a fine start to the 2016 season as they placed 1-2 in the first session of the day. Nelson Panciatici just dipped below last year’s fastest Prologue test time by setting a 1m47.340s lap early in the session with the Signatech-run Baxi DC Racing Alpine A460-Nissan. Panciatici’s time eclipsed stablemate Gustavo Menezes’ best run of 1m45.544s.
In the LMGTE classes it was Ferrari and Chevrolet that led the way. Gianmaria Bruni set a fastest tour of 1m57.808s in the striking new Ferrari 488 GTE, despite completing far fewer laps (18) than the opposition.
LMGTE Am was dominated by the Larbre Competition Chevrolet Corvette C7-Z06 during the four hours. Paolo Ruberti peaked on a 1m58268s in the rumbling American muscle GTE car which, despite a quick spin by Yutaka Yamagishi, enjoyed a strong initial showing.
With the clouds getting darker after the lunch break and spots of rain beginning to fall, the track conditions were not as favourable for some of the four hours of afternoon running.
But, with a small window of dry running in the early afternoon, Romain Dumas scorched to a 1m37.960s lap in the No.2 Porsche 919 Hybrid to put down a clear benchmark. Set on only his second tour of the session, the lap was just shy of last year's best time of 1m37.220s, which indicates that the teams have found a variety of improvements over the winter to negate the 8% cut in fuel allowance this season.
Audi was again frugal with its laps this afternoon. Only 28 were completed over the four hours, and just like this morning Benoit Tréluyer set the best lap of 1m39.393s in the new Audi R18.
Toyota Gazoo Racing seemed to be keeping plenty in their back pockets at Paul Ricard as they concentrated on developing the spectacular TS050 HYBRID. Anthony Davidson set the third fastest time, just a tenth of a second away from the Audi R18.
The LMP1 battle is set to be fierce in 2016, and although Audi and Toyota were over a second in arrears after the afternoon running, there is a feeling in the paddock that both have the package to offer the reigning champions a mighty challenge this year. More private testing will be undertaken before Silverstone in three weeks’ time.
Rebellion Racing again headed the ByKolles team in the LMP1 Privateer class with Nicolas Prost getting seat time in the No.12 car and heading the No.13 Anglo/Swiss car driven by Dominik Kraihamer.
The ferociously competitive LMP2 class saw five different constructors in the top five positions, and separated by just over a second. The session ended Gibson, Ligier, Alpine, ORECA and BR01, underlining the diversity in the popular class which always delivers excellent close racing.
An excellent time set by Jonny Kane in the Strakka Racing Gibson 015S-Nissan resulted in the British team being top of the timing screens. The Northern Irish racer set a time of 1m46.976s to get a clear 0.6s gap on his rivals. The chasing pack was led by the Mexican-entered RGR Sports by Morand squad, as Bruno Senna continued to acquit himself well in the LMP2 class to place second.
Ferrari again ran out top in the LMGTE Pro category with the new No.71 Ferrari 488 GTE car ahead of the No.67 Ford GT by just two tenths of a second. Davide Rigon’s 1m58.479s lap outpaced Andy Priaulx’s 1m58.697s, and the closeness of the battling manufacturers added more spice to the already highly anticipated Ford versus Ferrari battle.
Larbre Competition consolidated its position at the top of the LMGTE Am times with GT returnee Pierre Ragues posting a quick time with a best of 1m58.957s. This was just under two tenths of a second faster than Emmanuel Collard’s second best time of 1m59.113s in the No.83 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia.