With two Free Practice sessions wrapped up plus Qualifying Practice on Wednesday, today the 2023 Le Mans 24-Hour week steps up a gear with Hyperpole to determine outright pole position for what is being billed as the Race of the Century.
Ditto the LMP2 and LMGTE classes, their sharp-end starters will be established during the half hour of Hyperpole, scheduled for 20:00 CET local time, 18:00 GMT.
Qualifying is all about speed, and while one could argue that a top spot starts for a twice-around-the-clock race hardly matters. But there is the question of publicity and pride. The fact that Ferrari and Porsche, on the evidence of yesterday’s sessions, are squaring up for a titanic battle against the dominant Toyota team for top honours come Sunday afternoon local time when the chequered waves.
But leading the field on that long formation lap, in front of a record crowd, plus a booming television audience, is the kind of PR money can’t buy unless of course it’s invested in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and a Le Mans programme to boot.
Legends of endurance racing Porsche, Ferrari and Peugeot are back to challenge Toyota
In short, Porsche are hunting a 20th victory at Circuit de la Sarthe and Ferrari seeking their tenth at the legendary venue. Both manufacturers are back this year, the great Italian team after half a century of absence in the premier class battling for overall victory at the race.
Perhaps more unlikely to win the race on Sunday, are Peugeot who have bagged three times in their history, but a win for France on home soil might just blow the roof off the place! It’s racing so you never know, and the gods that hover over Le Mans are not shy to surprise as history has shown so often.
Toyota, who have won the last five editions of the race, famously with Formula 1 legend Fernando Alonso in 2018 and 2019 during the Spnairad’s sabbatical from the top flight. This sixth might just be the toughest one they have yet to win, but victory will also be the sweetest. TGR have dominated WEC solo, Le Mans included, for over half a decade.
Most of the starting positions for the 91st edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans were decided during Wednesday’s qualifiers, however, the fastest 24, eight from each class, will battle it out for the coveted P1 grid parking bay.
Introduced in 2020 to give teams a chance to demonstrate outright speed, in a similar manner that F1 does with Qualifying, ending with Q3 where everything is turned up to determine the top ten on the grid.
The Hyperpole session – Q3 on steroids – is for the first eight qualifiers in each class only. The outcome determines the top end of the grid and how each class will line up on Saturday for the race start.
The Le Mans 24 Hours circuit might be 13.626 km long, but with 62 cars on the track in the qualifying sessions, achieving the perfect lap is far from easy. Yellow flags, slow zones and traffic can all hamper the quest for pole position. This is precisely what prompted the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to create Hyperpole.
By selecting only the eight fastest cars in each class at the end of the qualifiers, the ACO gives drivers the opportunity to focus purely on speed without having to worry about traffic management or any of the other factors mentioned above. In Hyperpole, drivers only have to focus on one thing: achieving their best possible lap.
“What I can tell you about Hyperpole is that it sparks jealousy. All the drivers want to be in on it,” revealed Kamui Kobayashi, driver of the #7 Toyota GR010 Hybrid fielded by Toyota Gazoo Racing.
For Porsche GT team driver Kevin Estre: “It’s always nice to be at Le Mans and to get to drive with new tyres, little fuel in the car and no traffic. Battling for pole position in Hyperpole is also good for the ego and for prestige. Hyperpole adds a sprint aspect to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We know that the starting position doesn’t dictate the race, but it’s important to try to be in front.”
Like any Qualifying, the fastest time set by each team during the 30 minutes of Hyperpole will determine the top eight on the grid for each class. Competitors are not allowed to return to the pits or to refuel. However, they are free to choose their tyres, within the limit of eight for the session.
If a car qualified for Hyperpole does not complete any timed laps during the Hyperpole session – except in special cases at the discretion of the stewards – it will be lined up on the grid behind the other Hyperpole cars in the same class.