TOYOTA GAZOO Racing earned a front-row starting position for the 6 Hours of Shanghai after an incredibly close qualifying session for the penultimate round of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) season.

The #5 TS050 HYBRID of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima qualified second, just 0.060secs behind the pole position-winning Porsche #1 in a session which saw the top six separated by only 0.589secs.

Stéphane Sarrazin, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi were also in the fight for pole, and the one point which goes with it. The #6 crew, second in the drivers’ World Championship, will start Sunday’s race from fourth.

Qualifying was exciting from the beginning, when Sébastien and Mike took the wheel of their respective cars for a single flying lap each, establishing TOYOTA as a pole position contender.

When Kazuki and Stéphane took over, it became clear that track conditions were improving throughout the session. The team took the opportunity to allow Sébastien and Mike to return to their cars and try to improve their best lap times.

With the grid decided by the average of each driver’s fastest lap and the gap between the cars so small, pole position was up for grabs right until the last minutes of the session.

Sébastien set the fastest lap for a TS050 HYBRID and came within a whisker of top spot, with the 0.060secs gap the equivalent of only around three metres distance on the 5.451km Shanghai International Circuit.

Mike encountered traffic at the start of his final lap and could not improve, ending up 0.348secs away from pole, although a second-row start keeps the #6 in the hunt for victory; the car won from that same grid position last month at Fuji Speedway.

The #6 crew are fighting for the drivers’ title and will start ahead of the championship leaders, with the Porsche #2 qualifying sixth.

TS050 HYBRID #5 (Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima)

Free practice 3: 6th (1min 45.663secs). 26 laps

Qualifying: 2nd (1min 44.522secs average)

Sébastien Buemi: “It is great to be so competitive today, especially as qualifying is not normally our strong point. It’s a little bit a pity that I got caught behind an LMP2 car at the last corner; maybe without that we could have been on pole. But overall today’s performance is really good for the team. Now we look forward to the race and I am feeling optimistic; we hope to fight for the victory.”

Kazuki Nakajima: “We had quite a difficult time in free practice but, working together with the sister car, we improved the set-up and I was happy with the car in qualifying. Race balance is of course different to qualifying so we will work hard to extract the best performance on Sunday. I am quite hopeful for the race as we are on a similar pace to the others. The key will be consistency.”

TS050 HYBRID #6 (Stéphane Sarrazin, Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi)

Free practice 3: 2nd (1min 44.819secs). 27 laps

Qualifying: 4th (1min 44.810secs average)

Stéphane Sarrazin: “Our position could have been better; I think our car performance deserved more than fourth place. Mike had some traffic and could have gone quicker in his last lap. But the most important thing is that we are quick because when we are fast in qualifying we are usually really competitive in the race. That is the target because we want to challenge for the win here.”

Mike Conway: “It looked like the track was getting quicker during the session so I went out at the end to try to improve. But I had some traffic in turns one and two which really messed things up so I’m a bit disappointed not to get more out of it. The great lap from the sister car at the end shows that we could have a strong race tomorrow. It looks like it will be another exciting day.”

Free practice 3 results:

1st        #8 Audi (di Grassi/Duval/Jarvis)              1min 44.505secs            29 laps

2nd      #5 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing                             +0.314secs                 27 laps

3rd       #2 Porsche (Dumas/Jani/Lieb)                      +0.408secs                      26 laps

4th        #7 Audi (Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer)            +0.474secs                      29 laps

5th        #1 Porsche (Bernhard/Webber/Hartley)   +0.913secs                     32 laps

6th       #6 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing                             +1.158secs                 26 laps


Qualifying results:

1st        #1 Porsche (Bernhard/Webber/Hartley)   1min 44.462secs

2nd       #5 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing                           +0.060secs

3rd       #8 Audi (di Grassi/Duval/Jarvis)                    +0.148secs

4th       #6 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing                             +0.348secs

5th        #7 Audi (Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer)            +0.406secs

6th        #2 Porsche (Dumas/Jani/Lieb)                    +0.589secs