(Le Mans) The first hours of the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans gave rise to fierce competition on Saturday, marked by a bang from Toyota even if Ferrari, Porsche and even Cadillac are not giving up.
In the premier class of Hypercars, the two Ferraris were on the front row when American basketball star LeBron James gave the starting signal at 4 p.m. the race.
But the Toyota N.8, crowned last year and driven by Sébastien Buemi, who started from the second row, quickly took the lead and widened the gap from the start of the first safety car.
Behind, the battle for second place raged between the two Ferraris N.50 and N.51 and the Toyota N.7, sister and only rival of the N.8 for the past five years, while the three 963 prototypes followed , wheel to wheel.
Between overtaking and pit stops, the positions changed a lot in the following hour but all the cars remained in the game. The Cadillac N.3 driven by Sébastien Bourdais, a time at the forefront, however had to return to the pits due to damage.
Despite a few isolated showers before the start, the track remained dry. But the weather forecast still mentioned a risk of severe thunderstorms in the late afternoon or early evening.
Shortly before the start, a Chenard
Under the eyes of LeBron James but also of two legends of the race, Tom Kristensen, who holds the record for victories (9) and his runner-up Jacky Ickx (6).
But the most applauded on the starting grid was Charles Leclerc, Formula 1 driver at Ferrari who came to support the Scuderia, who welcomed the presence of many flags hitting the prancing horse in the stands.
“It’s exceptional, it’s the first time I’ve come to Le Mans,” said the Monegasque. “Le Mans is a race that I have always watched, it has always made me dream, why not one day…”.
Throughout the morning, spectators flocked, waiting in long queues in front of the entrances and then strolling through the crowded aisles around the circuit. Some 300,000 people were expected.
“I want to see Ferrari win! “said Andrew Hill, a 69-year-old Briton, who came with two friends, like him dressed in red from head to toe.
In recent years, the suspense was limited to which of Toyota’s N.7 or N.8 Hypercars would win, as the competition was limited.
Thanks to changes in the regulations which now allow the same cars to be raced in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and in the American IMSA Championship, Porsche, Cadillac, Peugeot and above all Ferrari, which has been absent for fifty years, are back in the Le Mans, while waiting for Alpine, BMW or even Lamborghini next year.
Toyota remains the big favourite, having won the first three rounds of the WEC (Sebring, Portimao and Spa).
After a glorious week, the rain spared the traditional parade of pilots on Friday, but it could disrupt the organizers of the planned events, concerts and pyrotechnic shows.
It won’t stop the cars from roaring under the watchful eye of 2,000 keen marshals, but it can confuse teams’ calculations and increase the risk of incidents and safety car interventions.
New this year, there will be only one safety car, instead of three in recent years, which could reshuffle the cards by eliminating the possible advance of the leaders compared to the competitors who stand in the same lap of the long circuit of 13.626 km.