Last year the all-French team of Sebastien Bourdais, Stephane Sarrazin and Franck Montagny were the pre-race favourites at Le Mans, but lost out after an extended pitstop for mechanical repairs.
For 2010 Bourdais has swapped seats and now partners Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud in the #3 Peugeot 908. He tells AUTOSPORT about how qualifying is now an open race between the Peugeot team-mates, how it felt to draw first blood in Wednesday's night session, and how the harsh winter has played havoc with the track surface.
Q. You clearly put a lot of effort into Wednesday's qualifying session. Was that because of the weather forecast?
Sebastien Bourdais: Yes, that was the plan, mostly because the weather forecast for Thursday was quite poor. Given the complexity of the weather forecast, it's always better to go straight to it - do the best job you can when the weather is good, and if you're unlucky then there's always the next day. If you don't try the first day and then the weather's miserable the next, then you've lost everything.
Q. How does it feel for a Frenchman to be top of the timesheet at Le Mans?
SB: For me it's even more special because I live here. It's not a win but it gives a very satisfying feeling. In the first qualifying session, my quick time was like the 95 per cent lap, when you have a pretty good feeling that you're not going to hit any traffic. And then when I got out of Arnage I saw nobody ahead, and I thought, 'This is your one shot, because it happens once every 10 years...' I was sure that so long as I didn't screw it up it would be the decisive lap.
Q. Stephane Sarrazin has been on pole for the past three years and you've swapped cars; did you feel that you had something to prove?
SB: No, it was nothing like that. I think the first year, 2007, when there was a head-to-head between Stephane and Nico [Minassian], I think that's the only time when there was a fight for pole within the team. That's not to take anything away from Stephane because he did a really good job, but he was the only one who was really in qualifying mode. Even yesterday [Wednesday] in qualifying we did two stints on the same tyres with full tanks.
In previous years Stephane was the one elected to do it, he was very reliable and he could pull it off at night, which is very risky. This year it was said that all three cars could have a shot at it.
Q. Did you have any sort of specific instructions, apart from not to crash it?
SB: We were told not to take any stupid risks, so that was why I was particularly happy to get that one opportunity. I did a 3m21s when I got only two cars I had to pass, and not at bad moments. With normal traffic when you get maybe 10 cars, the best you can do is a 3m23s.
Q. How do you account for the improvement in times this year?
SB: For sure the new surface at the Porsche Curves is more grippy, but it's also more tricky because the difference in grip between the racing line and off the line is huge. It feels wider, too. But I'm surprised because the rest of the track has basically gone south. We had a really bad winter and the road section has deteriorated. It's much more bumpy, and going from one side of the road to the other the crest is much sharper. The car bottoms out and even though we raised the ride height, we're still bottoming quite heavily.
Q. You had a big celebration at the end of the session yesterday. Was that because you didn't expect to improve today?
SB: Not really. I knew it was a good lap, but it was more the press that went crazy. You have to take it one day at a time because it doesn't mean much for the race. We didn't chase the pole, we achieved what we wanted in terms of set-up and aero tests.
Q. How hard are you having to push, in terms of riding the kerbs and other things you may not do during the actual race in order to preserve the car?
SB: I didn't really hit the kerbs and all of our front splitters are brand new, which I don't think is the case with the other three cars...