LONDON (Reuters) - Toyota were favourites to win Le Mans even before Kamui Kobayashi smashed the lap record in qualifying, but they can take nothing for granted when the 24 Hours sportscar race starts on Saturday.
The Circuit de la Sarthe, hosting the 85th edition of the French classic, has a history of heartbreak and five times runners-up Toyota know all about that.
Only one Japanese manufacturer has ever won Le Mans - Mazda in 1991 with a rotary-engined car - but Toyota had looked like ending that last year until some last lap drama handed the race to Porsche.
Kazuki Nakajima had been heading for the chequered flag when he reported a problem with five minutes remaining. The Japanese slowed, coming to a halt as Porsche celebrated their 18th victory.
Nakajima, who put Toyota on pole in 2014 only to retire while leading in a race won by Audi, is back on the front row with a score to settle after qualifying the number eight Toyota alongside pole-sitter Kobayashi in the number seven car.
Kobayashi’s fastest lap on Thursday was more than two seconds quicker than the previous record and at an average speed of 251.9 kph (156 mph).
Toyota had already put down a marker in pre-race testing earlier in June, when their cars filled the top three places, and they are leading the FIA world endurance championship after two wins in two rounds.
“After the test it is difficult to say that we are not favourites,” Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon said recently. “That is what we have been working for.”
Having already destroyed the lap record, and with fine weather predicted all weekend, Toyota could also break Audi’s 2010 record for the longest distance covered in 24 hours if all goes to plan.
“The record will probably be broken because back then our car was running five to six seconds slower than today’s cars,” French driver and 2010 winner Romain Dumas told the www.lemans.org website.
With Audi pulling out after last year’s race, Porsche are Toyota’s only rivals for overall victory and they have their two cars on the second row in third and fourth places as they chase a third straight win.
Porsche also have five previous winners in their two crews with New Zealander Brendon Hartley the odd man out - although he did win the world endurance championship in 2015.
Toyota’s third car qualified fifth with the only other entry in the top LMP1 category, the privately-run ByKolles team’s sole entry, lining up sixth.
Others in the 60-car field include Brazilian former F1 driver Rubens Barrichello, making his debut in a Dallara LMP2 car at the age of 45, and Indy Car compatriot Tony Kanaan, filling in for the injured Sebastien Bourdais in a Ford GT.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin editing by Mark Heinrich