LE MANS, France (Reuters) – Defending champions and overwhelming favourites Toyota were running first and second after an untroubled opening three hours of the 24 Hours of Le Mans sportscar race on Saturday.
The number seven TS050 hybrid car shared by Britain’s Mike Conway, Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi and Argentine Jose Maria Lopez was more than a minute clear of the team’s number eight car after leading the field away from pole position.
The number three Rebellion Racing entry, with Frenchmen Thomas Laurent and Nathanael Berthon as well as American Gustavo Menezes, was in third place in late afternoon sunshine with a threat of rain.
“Just trying to make everything clean, not to do anything silly,” said Conway after completing the opening stint and handing over to Kobayashi.
“I thought the sister car would be a little bit closer. It looks like they’re struggling a little bit. Just try and focus on our car, do what we do.”
The eight car crew of double Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima and Switzerland’s Sebastien Buemi won last year and are looking to clinch the World Endurance Championship (WEC) title.
Either way, Sunday’s finish at the famed Sarthe circuit will see a Japanese driver win a major FIA-sanctioned world championship for the first time.
Alonso, who left Formula One at the end of 2018 and can become the first F1 champion to win more than once at Le Mans, took over from Buemi after the two-hour mark.
Toyota are the only major manufacturer in the top LMP1 category and the championship battle, at the end of a super-season that includes two editions of Le Mans, is a private one between their drivers.
The Japanese car giant has already clinched the manufacturers’ championship and is sure to take the double with the number eight car out of reach of all but their team mates in car seven.
The ceremonial starting flag for the 87th edition of the race, with 61 cars taking part, was waved by Princess Charlene of Monaco.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Clare Fallon)