Soggy start to Le Mans as Toyota on course for a fourth crown

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The pole-sitting Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez headed into the darkness of the Le Mans 24 Hour Race on Saturday with a comfortable lead as the Japanese manufacturer eyed a fourth consecutive victory.

The leading Toyota was ahead of its sister hypercar of Kazuki Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley as the rain-drenched 89th edition of motorsport's mythic endurance race went past midnight local time.

As the two Toyotas held firm, the elite category rival Alpine of Andre Negrao, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxiviere slipped from third to sixth.

With Vaxiviere at the wheel, the car ended up in the gravel trap after slipping off the wet surface.

Vaxiviere was forced to return to the pits, allowing the Glickenhaus of Pipo Derani, Franck Mailleux and Olivier Pla to inherit third.

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 at the start.

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".

The 24 hours and more than 5,000 kilometres of racing are being watched by a 50,000 crowd capped at 20 percent capacity.

Conway was behind the wheel of Toyota's number seven car at the start and despite a puncture, he carved out a 1min 13sec lead before handing the wheel to Kobayashi.

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.

Buemi started from second on the grid but was involved in a collision with a rival during the opening lap before the two Toyotas settled into a comfortable 1-2.

Behind them, however, the race required the entry of the Safety Car when a heavy shower saw multiple cars come off at Porsche Curves and the Dunlop Chicane.

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 is expected to have a bright future.

Race chief Pierre 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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