LE MANS, France: The pole-sitting Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez led the Le Mans 24 Hour Race into the early hours of Sunday (jUN 16) as the Japanese manufacturer stayed on course for a predictable back-to-back win.
After nine hours, they had a seven-second lead on the other Toyota hybrid of Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima who triumphed 12 months ago.
Two laps off the pace was the SMP Racing car of Stephane Sarrazin, Egor Orudzhev and Sergey Sirotkin.
Most of the drama in the opening nine hours was down the field.
The Corvette of Swiss driver Marcel Fassler spun after contact with the Porsche of Japan’s Satoshi Hoshino who is driving for the team backed by film star Patrick Dempsey and US television.
After two, violent clashes with the safety barriers, the Corvette had to be lifted off the circuit by a crane with the crew forced to abandon.
Alonso, 37, is signing off on another chapter of his storied career, hoping to add back-to-back Le Mans titles to his two Formula One world championships.
“It’s always tough to race for 24 hours,” said Alonso who is still in contention for the overall world endurance championship title this season.
Despite his caution, a win for the Toyota hybrids is almost certain.
For the last two seasons, they have been the only manufacturer on the grid after Porsche and Audi pulled out of the elite LMP1 class which this year features just six other cars.