Turning in a quick lap time on a short track with a limited number of corners to memorize is one thing, but what about a circuit that’s 8.47 miles long, composed partly of repurposed public roads, and featuring one of the longest straights in racing? That’s the challenge for drivers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Kamui Kobayashi just set a record for the fastest-ever lap of Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe in a Toyota TS050 Hybrid during a qualifying session for this year’s race. Kobayashi completed his lap in 3:14.791, beating the previous record by 2.096 seconds, and averaging 156.5 mph. The video above shows exactly what that looks like.
The record-breaking performance means Toyota will start from pole position when the race gets underway Saturday. Kobayashi will share his number 7 Toyota with Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin. Toyotas will also start second and fifth, with the rival Porsche 919 Hybrids sandwiched between the Japanese contingent in third and fourth.
Le Mans is one of the most prestigious events in racing, but Toyota has extra motivation to win this year. The Japanese automaker came tantalizingly close to victory in 2016, only for its lead car to break down in the final minutes of the race. Toyota has never won Le Mans, but has five second-place finishes to its name. Rival Porsche has won a record 18 times. When it comes to Toyota, “underdog” is the operative word.
While Toyota and Porsche battle for the overall victory, the other big story at Le Mans this year is Ford’s attempt to pull off a second win in the GTE Pro class, the top class for cars based on production models. The Blue Oval scored a win last year with its GT on the 50th anniversary of its first overall Le Mans win, but its quest for a repeat victory hasn’t gotten off to a good start.
The 2017 GTE Pro pole was secured by Darren Turner in the number 97 Aston Martin Vantage GTE, while the highest-placed Ford GT was fifth. Ford seems to have been affected by “balance of performance” rule changes made to level the playing field among the different cars in the GTE Pro class. But a lot can happen in 24 hours, so Ford’s luck may improve.
Will Ford find more speed? Will Toyota finally get its long-sought Le Mans win? The 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans kicks off Saturday at 3:00 p.m. local time in France. Stay tuned.
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