Toyota target fourth Le Mans as fans return

Le Mans (France) (AFP) –


Toyota are firm favourites to win their fourth consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours title this weekend with fans back at the La Sarthe circuit for the 89th edition of motorsport's mythic endurance race.

Last year's Le Mans was held behind closed doors, coronavirus restrictions keeping the traditional crowd numbering 250,000 at home.

With capacity capped at 20 percent the 50,000 'petrolheads' burning the midnight oil are set for another demonstration of Toyota dominance as Le Mans ushers in the new Hypercar era.

Japan's former Formula One driver Kamui Kobayashi starts on pole after setting the fastest lap in Friday qualifying.

Kobayashi, who drove for Toyota and Sauber in his F1 career, is sharing driving duties with Britain's Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez of Argentina.

The 34-year-old is praying the fickle Le Mans gods spare him the ill-luck that kyboshed his chances of likely victory in the last two runnings.

In 2020 he had set out from pole and was looking good for victory at the half way point.

But a half an hour pit stop during the night for a turbo change ruined his car's race.

His team eventually finished third

In 2019 his car was coasting in front only for a puncture one hour from the finish which gifted the win to Toyota's second entry.

He also took second in 2018 when Toyota finally notched up their first Le Mans win at the 20th attempt.

Kobayashi nailed his fourth pole when clocking 3 min 23.900sec to get ahead of New Zealander Brendon Hartley in the second Toyota.

"I'm thrilled, to be on pole for the first time at Le Mans with our new Hypercar is fantastic.

"Our team is focussed to perform during the race. But to be honest, to be fastest over one lap is always a good feeling."

Kobayashi is one of a multitude of F1 drivers seduced by the magic of Le Mans.

Another is Kevin Magnussen, who teams up with dad Jan for the High Class Racing team.

"It's already a dream come true," said ex-Haas driver Magnussen.

- 'Golden age' -

"Le Mans has always been a part of my life. I feel like I know how the race works very well and so it's always fantastic to go and do something in real life that you've been watching on television for that long."

Robert Kubica is also making his Le Mans debut after his F1 career.

The Polish driver, who partially severed his right arm in a crash at the Rally of Andorra in 2011, is behind the wheel of an Oreca as he looks for a change of fortune having never completed an endurance race.

"It’s wonderful to be here today. It’s a great challenge, which is what I love. I hope that, on Sunday, I will leave satisfied that I have finished the race. That is my main aim," he said.

When Ferrari chairman John Elkann waves the starting flag 62 cars will set off at 16h00 local time (1400GMT) with effectively five races in one race.

The pack is led by the five Hypercars - the two Toyotas joined by the French Alpine entry, and two cars from US film director and businessman James Glickenhaus' racing team.

For the second time there are two teams featuring all-female crews for the event FIA chief Jean Todt calls the "crown jewels of motor sport".

With the arrival of the Hypercar category and return over the next few years of some big name constructors like Audi, Porsche and Ferrari, Le Mans has an exciting future ahead.

Pierre Fillon predicts new 'golden era' for Le Mans
Pierre Fillon predicts new 'golden era' for Le Mans JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER AFP

Fillon, the brother of former France prime minister Francois Fillon, told AFP: "I think we can talk about a new golden age with the return of the great marques."