Favourites Toyota led the 24 Hours of Le Mans sportscar race at the quarter distance on Saturday with champions Porsche left with just one car battling it out against the Japanese manufacturer’s three.
After six hours, the number seven Toyota with France’s Stephane Sarrazin at the wheel was leading Porsche’s number one car, driven by former winner Andre lotterer of Germany, by 25.854 seconds.
Porsche’s number two car, their only other entrant in the top LMP1 category, pitted after three and a half hours with a front axle problem. It remained in the garage for a long period and was 54th and 18 laps down.
Toyota have entered three cars to Porsche’s two and are chasing a first victory at the Sarthe Circuit, after five times finishing runners-up in 18 failed attempts, to become only the second Japanese manufacturer to win the French race.
Mazda won in 1991 on a road track where mechanical reliability is of critical importance and plenty of dangers lie in wait for drivers racing in shifts through the night and into the dawn.
This year Toyota have won the first two rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, in which Le Mans is the jewel in the crown with a crowd of around 300,000, and started on pole on Saturday after a record qualifying lap.
Ex-Formula One driver Kamui Kobayashi, who shares the number seven car with Britain’s Mike Conway and Sarrazin, had lapped the circuit with the fastest time ever – an average speed of 251.882kph – on Thursday.
Toyota came agonisingly close to winning last year but a last lap power failure on Kazuki Nakajima’s leading car handed the victory to Porsche. Nakajima is back at Le Mans in the team’s number eight car.
With once-dominant Audi pulling out after last year’s race, the 2017 edition is a straightforward battle between the two carmakers.
The only other LMP1 entrant is the number four ByKolles Racing ENSO and that retired in the second hour after Britain’s Oliver Webb made contact with the wall on the opening lap.
Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, who holds the record for most Formula One races started, made his debut in a Racing Team Nederland Dallara LMP2 car.
In the process, the 45-year-old became the 40th driver to compete at Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix.
The race was started by Formula One chairman Chase Carey waving a gold tassled French flag with FIA head Jean Todt and Automobile Club de l’Ouest president Pierre Fillon in attendance.