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PORSCHE are headed for a third successive victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans after early pace-setters Toyota saw their hopes of a first win disappear before dawn.
With under five hours remaining, just the No.1 Porsche of Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy remains standing of the LMP1 fleet after a litany of disasters scuppered the rest of the class.
LMP2 class cars fill out the next five spots and lie in wait should the No.1 Porsche hit trouble in the final six hours.
The Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca driven by Thomas Laurent, Oliver Jarvis and Ho-Pin Tung was in second place, 13 laps behind, while Vaillante Rebellion’s number 13 car, driven by Nelson Piquet Junior, David Hansson and Mathias Beche was third.
The No.2 Porsche is trying to chase them down to reach the podium after losing almost 20 laps in the garage with a front driveshaft problem, and sat sixth overall just three laps behind the second-placed car.
Toyota’s hopes were high after securing pole position with a record fastest lap at the Sarthe circuit, but two of the team’s three cars retired in the night within half an hour of each other.
Only the number eight Toyota remained on track, in 15th place and 28 laps behind the leading Porsche of former winners Neel Jani of Switzerland, Britain’s Nick Tandy and Germany’s Andre Lotterer.
“It is so disappointing. The car was running very well and we were just taking things steady, building a gap at the front. Then after the safety car, I just had no power,” pole-sitter Kamui Kobayashi said.
The former Formula One driver was halted by a clutch problem in the leading number seven car around the 10 hours mark.
Until then, the car had barely missed a beat as five-times runner-up Toyota set about trying to end years of heartache and become only the second Japanese manufacturer to win the motor sport’s greatest endurance race. The team missed out last year when their leading car broke down on the final lap only minutes from the chequered flag.
In a second big blow, the number nine car driven by Frenchman Nicolas Lapierre, Japan’s Yuji Kunimoto and Argentina’s Jose Maria Lopez was involved in a collision 15 minutes later and was forced to retire.
The number eight car of Switzerland’s Sebastien Buemi, Britain’s Anthony Davidson and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima had already lost more than an hour in the pits as mechanics replaced the front motor and battery.
The Graff Racing entry of Australian James Allen, Franck Matelli and Richard Bradley was ninth overall after the 17 hours mark, while the Ford of Aussie Ryan Briscoe, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon and Richard Westbrook was 26th overall and eighth in the GTE Pro class.