Soggy start to Le Mans with Toyota in pursuit of fourth crown
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Le Mans (France) (AFP) –
Toyota set off from pole in pursuit of a fourth consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours title on Saturday with the La Sarthe circuit drenched after a heavy rain shower before the start of the 89th edition of motorsport's mythic endurance race.
With die hard fans back after Covid-19 forced organisers to hold last year's race behind closed doors the 62 cars were allowed three formation laps to adapt to the tricky conditions.
With plenty of pomp and ceremony as befits one of motorsport's crown jewels Ferrari chairman John Elkann gave the time honoured instruction to the intrepid drivers: "Start your engines".
Ahead of them 24 hours and more than 5,000 kilometres of racing, watched by a 50,000 crowd capped at 20 percent capacity, all ready to burn the midnight oil as Le Mans ushers in the new Hypercar era.
Mike Conway was behind the wheel of Toyota's number seven car and pole sitter, the Briton sharing the driving with Japan's Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez of Argentina.
Kobayashi, who drove for Toyota and Sauber in his F1 career, is praying the fickle Le Mans gods spare him the ill-luck that kyboshed his chances of likely victory in the last two runnings.
Toyota's other entry driven by Sebastien Buemi started from second on the grid but was involved in a collision with a rival during the opening lap.
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.
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.
"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. 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.
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.
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 brands."
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