(Updates after 10 hours)
LE MANS, France, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Reigning champions Toyota led the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race into the early hours of Sunday in one-two formation and with a third successive win in their sights.
After 10 hours of racing, the number seven TS050 hybrid car driven by Britain’s Mike Conway was a lap ahead of the number eight car, which lost time in the pits with brake duct cooling issues.
The 88th edition of the race was being held behind closed doors at the Sarthe circuit, a sad first for a race approaching its centenary year in 2023.
Last year saw 250,000 spectators, many of them British motor racing fans, flock to the circuit in north-west France but the COVID-19 pandemic has meant this year’s race is crowd-free.
“My feeling today is that it’s a success and I’m very happy for all the teams and all the people who are working to organise this race,” Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) president Pierre Fillon had told reporters after the start.
“Of course, we were very afraid not to be able to have the race.
“It was no question to cancel the race because with the economic model for the competitors it would be so difficult for them. So today I am very proud that we achieved the race.”
Le Mans is the world’s oldest sportscar race, and the jewel in the crown of the World Endurance Championship (WEC), but Toyota are now the only major manufacturer in the top LMP1 category.
Reliability issues aside, they are challenged only by Swiss-based Rebellion Racing.
Rebellion’s number one car, with Brazilian Bruno Senna taking his turn at the wheel, was running third but two laps off the lead.
Only four LMP1 cars remained in the race -- the Toyotas and two Rebellion R13 Gibsons -- after the ByKolles Racing entry retired.
The race was officially started by Peugeot boss Carlos Tavares, with the French brand -- winners at Le Mans in 1992, 1993 and 2008 -- set to return in 2022 as challengers for outright victory. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ian Chadband and Ken Ferris)
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