LE MANS, France, June 17 (Reuters) - Toyota made a smooth start to their bid for an historic first victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday with the Japanese manufacturer’s cars reaching the three-hour mark in one-two formation.
Starting from pole position on a hot afternoon at the Sarthe Circuit, the number seven Toyota with Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi at the wheel was leading the number eight of Britain’s Anthony Davidson by some 30 seconds.
Porsche, chasing their third win in a row, held third and fourth places with their number one car 35 seconds off the pace in a largely incident-free opening period.
Only one Japanese manufacturer has ever won Le Mans, Mazda in 1991 with a rotary-engined car, but Toyota - after 18 failed attempts - have set the pace this year.
They have won the first two rounds of the world endurance championship and lined up for Le Mans on the back of a record qualifying lap.
Ex-Formula One driver Kobayashi, who shares the seven car with Britain’s Mike Conway and Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin, lapped the circuit with the fastest time ever - an average speed of 251.882kph.
Five-times runners-up Toyota came agonisingly close to winning last year but a last lap power failure on Kazuki Nakajima’s leading car handed the victory to Porsche.
With once-dominant Audi pulling out of Le Mans after last year’s race, the 2017 edition is a straightforward battle between Porsche and Toyota.
The only other entrant in the top LMP1 category, the number four ByKolles Racing ENSO CLM, retired after Britain’s Oliver Webb made contact with the wall on the opening lap.
Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, who still holds the record for most Formula One races started, made his Le Mans debut in a Racing Team Nederland Dallara LMP2 car.
In the process, the 45-year-old became the 40th driver to compete at all three of Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix.
The race was started by Formula One chairman and chief executive Chase Carey waving a gold tassled French flag with FIA head Jean Todt and Automobile Club de l‘Ouest president Pierre Fillon in attendance. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ed Osmond)