Photo: ACO

Jani’s Porsche, Mueller’s Ford headline provisional Le Mans polesitters

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Two iconic manufacturers have the provisional poles in the marquee classes for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Neel Jani, last year’s overall polesitter, has the provisional top spot overall and in LMP1 this year in the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid with a best time of 3:19.733 around the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.

But the bigger story comes in GTE-Pro, where Ford has – for the moment – appeared to play the Balance of Performance game to its advantage with locking out four of the top five positions on the provisional grid. The manufacturer makes its much trumpeted return to Le Mans as a factory effort this year on the 50th anniversary of its 1966 win with the original Ford GT.

Dirk Mueller was best of the Fords in the No. 68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GT at a 3:51.185, that coming on the car’s 22nd and final lap of the two-hour provisional qualifying session.

Other provisional polesitters included Rene Rast in the No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 05 Nissan in LMP2 (3:36.605) and Rob Bell in the No. 61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari F458 Italia in GTE-Am (3:56.827).

With rain a distinct possibility for Thursday’s pair of two hour sessions, which run from 7 to 9 and 10 to 12 p.m. local time, respectively, there is a very good chance that these times set the grid for Saturday’s 84th running of the French endurance classic.

Brief class breakdowns are below:

LMP1

  • It’s a ‘”Noah’s Ark” style provisional grid with two Porsches, then two Toyota TS050 Hybrids and two Audi R18s, before the two privateer Rebellion R-One AERs. The ByKolles CLM P1/01 AER didn’t get out during the session after a fire in free practice.
  • Per Radio Le Mans, the Audis were delayed out in the session.

LMP2

  • The top four cars are Oreca 05 variants – two Oreca 05s and the rebadged Alpine A460s – with the top Ligier the lone Ligier JS P2 Honda in the field, courtesy of a flier from Laurens Vanthoor in the No. 49 Michael Shank Racing car.
  • The No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan – which runs in white and black Paul Mitchell colors this race owing to alcoholic restrictions – was sixth.
  • The top open-top car was the No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan in eighth in class.
  • The No. 27 SMP Racing BR01 Nissan that includes IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin is 15th in class.

GTE-Pro

  • Might as well be all about the BoP. Ford and Ferrari have locked out the top seven positions in the 14-car field with their seven entered cars, leaving the remaining seven cars from Corvette, Aston Martin and Porsche all 3.733 seconds or more in arrears.
  • IndyCar stars Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon are in the Nos. 68 and 69 cars and tentatively first and second.

GTE-Am

  • Ferrari has four of the top six in this class with the older Ferrari F458 Italia; the top Porsche is the No. 78 KCMG entry in seventh.
  • NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell is currently ninth in the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari F458 Italia he shares with Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler.

Provisional pole quotes

Jani to Radio Le Mans’ Bruce Jones: “It was not an easy session. None of us had a clear run. It was quite a difficult session to manage. We’ll see. Maybe it is enough. Maybe not. It’s a good start to the weekend for sure. I hit a lot of traffic especially in the Porsche corners I lost quite a bit of time. We know we have some more in our pockets. If we need to use more, we’ll see. That’s racing here, or qualifying here. You need a bit of luck sometimes.”

Rast to Radio Le Mans’ Shea Adam: “[Rain] would be ideal! We hope for some rain. But we still can improve the car. Got quite a bit traffic. We can go six or seventh tenths quicker. Very happy with pole position so far. Good lineup. For now it’s a bit perfect.”

Mueller to Jones: “I got my clear lap at the end. Be patient, be patient. Finally, last lap, it was a good lap to the checkered flag. I’ve been there on the podium with Joey (Hand) before. Lots of experience. Combined it’s just really really nice.”

Bell to Adam: “Not too fussed to be honest. We have good pace, good car. Wherever we are in quali, we are. If it rains tomorrow, great. If you’re pole here only means you cross line first with 24 hours left. I’m playing a down a bit. But it’d be a feather in cap to get pole. We haven’t got a huge quali setup on the car.”

PROVISIONAL QUALIFYING TIMES

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994