Loic Duval’s fastest lap leads Audi 1-2-3 in Le Mans qualifying

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Qualifying for a 24-hour race isn’t particularly important, but the pride of being on pole position still matters. For three manufacturers, they have that honor for the 90th Anniversary 24 Hours of Le Mans.

To no-one’s great surprise, Audi has scored the overall pole with the No. 2 R18 e-tron quattro co-driven by Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval. Duval’s lap set Wednesday held as the fastest overall at 3:22.349 around the 8.469-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. Audi has the top three spots in LMP1 and overall, with the No. 1 second (Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer, Marcel Fassler) and the No. 3 third (Lucas di Grassi, Marc Gene, Oliver Jarvis).

Nissan captured the pole in LMP2 with OAK Racing, and French driver Olivier Pla in the No. 24 Morgan Nissan. Mike Conway’s No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca Nissan is second on the grid ahead of the No. 38 Zytek Nissan fielded by JOTA Sport (Simon Dolan, Oliver Turvey, Lucas Luhr). Pla co-drives with Danish programming whiz David Heinemeier Hansson and Martin Brundle’s son Alex, while Conway co-drives with John Martin and Roman Rusinov.

Aston Martin has completed a lockout of the GTE Pro and GTE Am class poles with 2013 and 2012-spec Vantages. Fred Makowiecki has the GTE Pro class pole in the No. 99 entry, which he’ll co-drive with Rob Bell and ex-Williams F1 driver Bruno Senna. Allan Simonsen set the mark in GTE Am, for year-old spec cars. Makowiecki’s best lap was 3:54.635 with Simonsen at 3:57.776.

As for the highlights of teams and drivers from the ALMS and GRAND-AM:

  • ALMS team Rebellion Racing’s No. 12 Lola Toyota dropped one spot from Wednesday, and will start the 24 Hours sixth overall (and LMP1). ALMS regulars Nick Heidfield and Neel Jani are joined by Nicolas Prost this weekend in the prototype. Rebellion’s No. 13 entry, co-driven by Andrea Belicchi, Mathias Beche and Cong Fu Cheng, qualified right behind, in seventh.
  • The No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, co-driven by Bill Auberlen, Paul Dalla Lana and Pedro Lamy, qualified fifth, in GTE Pro.The No. 77 Dempsey Del Piero-Proton Porsche 911 GT3 with Patrick Long, Joe Foster and Patrick Dempsey driving, will start seventh in the LM GTE Am class.
  • The sole GRAND-AM team competing, 8 Star Motorsports, has a Ferrari F458 Italia going off ninth in GTE Am. Owner/driver Enzo Potolicchio is joined by co-drivers Rui Aguas and Jason Bright.
  • The three teams featuring GRAND-AM Corvette DP standouts Richard Westbrook, Jordan Taylor and Ricky Taylor – all in Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1s – will start deep in their respective classes. Westbrook’s team starts eighth in GTE Pro; Jordan Taylor’s team starts ninth in GTE Pro, and Ricky Taylor’s team starts 12th in GTE Am.
  • And Ryan Dalziel, a Le Mans champion last year in LMP2, will co-drive the No. 53 SRT Motorsports Viper which will grid 10th in GTE Pro.

The race begins at 3 p.m. local time Saturday (check local listings).

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”