McNish back on top in session three

Race engines fitted, race tyres on the rims and temperatures in the high '20s. Better for provisional pole-sitters Audi to just concentrate on race set-up than go for it on the second evening of qualifying, right? Wrong... Audi turned up the wick in the first of Thursday's timed sessions, showed its hand a little bit more, and put even more fresh air between its trio of R8s and the opposition.

McNish back on top in session three

This time, with one hour and 20 minutes of the session gone, it was Tom Kristensen's turn to sit on the provisional pole after turning in a lap of 3m36.650s in the Biela/Kristensen/Pirro machine.

Amazingly, just eight minutes later and with track temperatures still through the roof, Allan McNish put in an identical time to the Dane's in the Aiello/McNish/Ortelli car, putting it second on the grid with a potentially cooler, two-hour dusk/dark session still to go.

Time to sit back and wait for the cool of that final session? No... With just 10 minutes to go, McNish made provisional pole his own with a lap of 3m36.124s (140.752mph) - but still nearly five seconds off Toyota's 1999 Toyota pole, to put it into some sort of perspective.

Third, of course, was the third of the Audis. But as the only R8 not to improve its times during the session, erstwhile pole-sitter Rinaldo Capello and his team-mates Michele Alboreto and Christian Abt may have to settle for a second row slot.

Best of the rest once again was the Panoz Spyder LMP of Brabham/Magnussen/Andretti, but unlike Audi, this was definitely a team concentrating on race set-up - bar one last-gasp effort by David Brabham that failed to deliver the goods.

After that, a gap of 1.5s to the biggest climber of the day - the SMG Courage-Judd C60 with Phillipe Gache at the wheel, which improved on its Wednesday time by a whopping 5.5s. Their were mixed fortunes for Cadillac, with the DAM'S Northstar of Bernard/Collard/Montagny jumping to 10th overall and the Wallace/Lagorce/Leitzinger car falling from 11th to 14th.

But it's not over yet and with the final session due to start at 2200 (2100 BST), track conditions and temperatures should be perfect for any team attempting to improve its final grid position. One question: has Audi proved its point, or is that 3m35s barrier just too good an opportunity to miss?

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