Kamui Kobayashi put Toyota’s No. 7 car on pole position on Friday for a condensed and rescheduled Le Mans 24 Hour race being held without spectators due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Japanese veteran made sure of the champions’ fourth successive pole on a sunny morning at the Sarthe circuit but fell short of his 2017 record of 3 minutes 14.791 seconds in the TS050 hybrid car.
Kobayashi’s fastest lap in the new Hyperpole session was 3:15.267.
“To be honest, a little bit disappointed because on my second attempt it seemed I could break my record,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had the lap deleted [for exceeding track limits], so I had to stop. I was gaining already seven tenths, which is already breaking the record, so it’s a big shame.”
Toyota is the only major manufacturer in the top LMP1 category at the 88th running of the event, and is the favorite for a winning hat trick in the last Le Mans outing for the TS050 hybrid car before the new hypercar era in 2021.
The grueling highlight of the world endurance calendar last year drew a crowd of 250,000.
Kobayashi has yet to win it, finishing runner-up in the past two years while compatriot Kazuki Nakajima stood atop the podium with No. 8 car teammates Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso.
The No. 8 Toyota, with Nakajima at the wheel, qualified third this time, with Rebellion Racing’s No. 1 R13 Gibson car in second position.
American Gustavo Menezes’ time in the Rebellion was a Le Mans record by a non-hybrid LMP1 car.
Rebellion’s No. 3 car qualified fourth.
Nakajima is partnered this year again by experienced Swiss teammate Buemi, while New Zealander Brendon Hartley replaces Spaniard Alonso.
Kobayashi remains alongside Britain’s Mike Conway and Argentina’s Jose Maria Lopez, leaders of the World Endurance Championship series after six of eight races.
Friday’s 30-minute hyperpole session featured 23 of the 59 entrants — the top six in the four classes after a preliminary qualifying session on Thursday.
There are only five entries in the LMP1 category in a race that also features two all-female crews.
Postponed from June, the race will be waved away at 1230 GMT on Saturday by Peugeot boss Carlos Tavares.
Because of the later date, nearly half of the race will be held in darkness — some three hours and 40 minutes more than mid-June.