Toyota set off from pole in quest for third Le Mans title

By: AFP      Published: 06:37 PM, 19 Sep, 2020
Toyota set off from pole in quest for third Le Mans title

Toyota set off from  pole in pursuit of a third consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours race which got underway at 1230 GMT Saturday in front of empty stands with Covid-19 keeping away the motorsport classic's normal crowd of 250,000 diehard fans.

Toyota are hot favourites to claim the 88th edition of the marathon endurance event with the Japanese manufacturer's number seven car in early control.

Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose-Maria Lopez are out to make up for last year's near-miss when, with the race at their mercy, a puncture an hour from the finish gifted victory to Toyota's second car.

Sharing the front row for this Le Mans, held over from its traditional June date, was the Rebellion of American Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato of France and Ayrton Senna's nephew Bruno.

It was Bruno Senna in the first stint behind the wheel who was tracking the Toyota in second ahead of Toyota's winning car from 2018 and 2019 driven by Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley, who replaced Fernando Alonso.

Two-time Formula One champion Alonso is skipping a chance to land the Le Mans hat-trick as he focusses on his F1 return next season.

The second Rebellion shared the second row, with the Enzo of Tom Dillmann, Bruno Spengler and Oliver Webb completing the five-car line-up for the elite LMP1 race.

This quintet were joined on the grid by 24 cars in the LMP2 category, 22 in LM GTE AM and eight in LM FTE PRO.

With 59 cars setting off, some with amateurs at the wheel, traffic problems, especially if the forecast rain and even hail arrives, could complicate matters.

"It was a mess in the night time practice session on Thursday," complained Buemi.

"The problem this year is the lack of opportunities for drivers to compete (due to coronavirus)," the Swiss former F1 driver said.

"Professional drivers know how to cope with traffic...but the amateurs don't know where to go, they race in the middle, it's very dangerous.

"And what's more this year we'll have 11 hours of driving at night." 

Saturday's start was moved forward from 1400 to account for the shorter days in September.

This Le Mans will be played out with the famous La Sarthe circuit's cavernous grandstands eerily empty.

Organisers ACO had initially hoped to allow in a portion of the quarter of a million petrolheads who make the annual sleep-deprived pilgrimage.

But maintaining social distancing protocol around the entire 13 kilometre track was proving too much of a problem, resulting in the total crowd ban for the event uprooted by the pandemic from its usual June slot for the first time since 1968.