An intense battle for the front row of the 24 Hours of Le Mans has swung between New Zealand driver Brendon Hartley and race favourites Toyota overnight.
Seldom has qualifying for the epic endurance race been so closely fought.
Kiwi Brendon Hartley took provisional pole with fastest time in the first qualifying session at Le Mans, but his time of 3:23.157 was toppled by the Toyota team late in the second session overnight.
Toyota took provisional pole position for the Le Mans 24 Hours courtesy of a last-gasp lap from Kazuki Nakajima in a thrilling conclusion to the incident-filled second session. Track time was interrupted by a crash when Leo Roussel attempted to pass Audi driver Lucas di Grassi at speed approaching the Ford chicane, but took to the grass to avoid the Audi as it jinked left. He spun and speared across the track, slamming hard into the barrier. Both drivers were summoned to race control over the incident.
Nakajima, who shares the No. 7 car with double Le Mans winner Alex Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin, underlined the Toyota TS040 Hybrid's status as pre-race favourite by clinching top spot ahead of tonight's final part of qualifying, but Porsche's pair of 919 Hybrids pushed the Japanese manufacturer hard throughout the session.
Nakajima's session-topping time was 3:22.589.
Strong Kiwi link with epic race
New Zealand motor racing enthusiasts have many reasons to be watching for news from this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The factory Toyota team has won both rounds of the 2014 World Endurance Championship with its hybrid petrol-electric race cars and is regarded by many as the favourite going into the event.
In the Toyota and Porsche teams contesting the top LMP1 category and in the private teams racing in LMP2, New Zealand has its strongest connection with this epic race for many decades.
Palmerston North's own Brendon Hartley (24) is preparing for his first run in the LMP1 category at the 24 hour race, one of the absolute flagships of global motorsport, driving alongside Mark Webber in the new Porsche team. Ten years ago, Hartley was the first ever race winner in New Zealand's own Toyota Racing Series, a championship established by Toyota to help young New Zealand drivers gain 'wings and slicks' driving skills in modern single-seater race cars before heading overseas to advance their careers.
He went on to win Formula Renault 2.0, race partial seasons in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 and then to a stint as test and reserve driver for the Red Bull and Toro Rosso Formula One teams. More recently Hartley has been working in a testing and race simulator performance analysis position with Mercedes F1's engineering team. He has raced sports prototypes and endurance racing cars since 2012 and this year steps up to the top LMP1 category for the first time.
Hartley says the Porsche team's pace at the official test day was 'very encouraging', though ultimately the speed and lap times of each team were very close and the fastest cars in the LMP1 category will only become obvious when the race begins.
New Zealand's links to the race this year go further than this. In addition to the Hartley drive another Kiwi driver stands ready to fill a race spot with the Aston Martin team: Rotorua-born Richie Stanaway is a listed reserve driver for the team. Stanaway has also raced in New Zealand's Toyota Racing Series. Another three TRS graduates are driving in other classes: Jann Mardenborough (TRS 2013 and 2014), Adderly Fong (TRS 2008-2009) and Nathanael Berthon (TRS 2012)
The Kiwi connections also lead back to the championship leaders and favourites, the Toyota team. Their Austrian star Alex Wurz - a double Le Mans winner - raced in Formula Ford in New Zealand in the mid-1990s and raced for many years afterward with mismatched driving boots. He got his distinctive superstition about race footwear in New Zealand when a crew member hid one of his racing boots, forcing him to race - and win - wearing mismatched boots. The habit persisted well into Wurz's Formula One career.
The Cologne-based Toyota team has won both the previous rounds of the 2014 World Endurance Championship on the trot and arrives at the race weekend with fastest time in official testing. The team's cars were 1-2 in the official test day on June 1, heading 2013 winners Audi whose cars filled the next two spots and Porsche which claimed fifth spot.
Toyota finished second at Le Mans last year to Audi in its previous hybrid race car, the TS030. This year their new car, the TS040, has swept all before it in the top LMP1 category.
The TS040 uses exotic materials and a hybrid petrol-electric drivetrain that gives it a blended all-wheel-drive advantage - four electric wheel motors pair up with a 3.7-litre four cam V8 engine driving just the rear wheels. The arrangement gives both grip and go, and it makes the new car 25 per cent more economical than last year's TS030.
A total of 480PS boost comes from electric motors on the front and rear axle, with energy stored in a 'super capacitor' and available to the driver when required. The remaining 520PS is generated by the new-for-2014 3.7 litre normally-aspirated 90? vee V8 petrol engine driving the rear wheels. At Le Mans, the TS040 will race in a low-drag aerodynamic format to maximise its speed and reduce fuel consumption.
The Le Mans 24 hour race was first held in 1923 and over the years has drawn most of motorsport's top drivers to its unique challenge. It is part of motorsport's Triple Crown of premium events, which groups the Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500 titles together with Le Mans, creating an elite 'club' of top drivers who have competed in all three. Only British driver Graham Hill has ever won all three races.
The 2014 24-Heures du Mans can be viewed live on the internet at http://www.lemans-tv.com/ with live timing and online race narratives at http://www.24h-lemans.com/live/en