LE MANS, France -- Fernando Alonso's Toyota team topped the opening qualifying session for this weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours.
Kazuki Nakajima's 3:17.270 put the No.8 team top of the order on Wednesday evening, 0.107s quicker than Toyota's other team. The next nearest car was over two seconds behind, underlining the raw pace advantage the Japanese manufacturer has over the rest of the field. Rain is currently forecast to fall during Thursday's two sessions, meaning that time could be enough to claim pole position.
Alonso took over from his other teammate, Sebastien Buemi, 40 minutes into the session to get his first experience of Le Mans at night. His best individual time -- 3:20.991 -- was 11th fastest, although his turn in the car came after the circuit temperature had dropped significantly. Alonso was also out on the circuit at one of its busiest points, with a host of slower cars from other categories out on the circuit with him, adding to the challenge of his first laps on a floodlit Circuit de la Sarthe.
The rules dictate each driver must have completed five night-time laps before they are allowed to take part in the race; Alonso and one of his other fellow Le Mans rookies, former McLaren teammate Jenson Button, both did so. Button's SMP Racing team, which also features Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin, finished the opening session in seventh position.
Although starts are less significant in an endurance race than in a grand prix, there is still a huge amount of prestige to claiming pole at Le Mans -- Toyota is the odds-on favourite to do so this weekend. The Japanese manufacturer is looking to claim its first ever victory at the French circuit and has spent much of the build-up to the event focusing on car reliability.
The race will host a number of other ex-F1 drivers. The No.7 Toyota team includes former Sauber and Caterham man Kamui Kobayashi. The LMP2 category, below the premier LMP1 division which Toyota competes in, features the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Jean-Eric Vergne, Felipe Nasr and Pastor Maldonado.
The Le Mans 24 Hours starts on Saturday, June 16, at 3pm local time.