(Le Mans) The first hours of the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans gave rise to fierce competition on Saturday evening, with each of the five major manufacturers entered in Hypercar, the premier category, taking turns in the lead.
The race is still long but the time when only the N.7 and the N.8 of Toyota, pointed very slightly in the lead at 10 p.m. (2 p.m. Eastern time), fought for victory is for the moment gone.
Admittedly, the Japanese manufacturer, winner of the first three rounds of the WEC (Sebring, Portimao and Spa), remains the favourite.
And he hit hard from the start when his N.8 driven by Sebastian Buemi, winner last year but third at the start, took the lead on the first lap, toasting the courtesy of the Ferraris, who had started on the front row.
But between reckless overtaking and pit stops, the two Scuderia cars, back at Le Mans after a 50-year absence, also led the way at times, as did several Porsches and Cadillacs.
By 6:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. EST), nine cars were still under 15 seconds, and 20 minutes later, a heavy downpour turned the Porsche corner into an ice rink.
Several cars went into aquaplaning, causing the intervention of the safety car, which put the race under glass for almost an hour and a half.
In the pit stop game, the Peugeot N.94, which was in third place before the intervention of the safety car, found itself in the lead, under the clamor of the public. A first in ages for the French manufacturer, who returned to Le Mans this year after a 12-year absence from the premier class.
When the track was cleared shortly after 8:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m. EST), Jota’s privateer team Porsche quickly overtook the Peugeot, before crashing off the track that required lengthy repairs half an hour later.
As night fell, the top seven cars—two Toyotas, two Ferraris, a Peugeot, a Cadillac, and a Porsche—were still under 1:20 and they were nine on the same lap, likely to see their deviations eliminated in the event of further intervention by the safety car.
According to the weather forecast, showers were still possible overnight, before a dry Sunday.
On Saturday at 4:00 p.m. (10:00 a.m. EST), American basketball player LeBron James gave the start, as two racing legends looked on: Tom Kristensen, who holds the winning record (9) and his dolphin Jacky Ickx (6).
Just before, a Chenard
But the most applauded on the starting grid was Charles Leclerc, Formula 1 driver at Ferrari who came to support the Scuderia.
“It’s exceptional, it’s the first time I’ve come to Le Mans,” said the Monegasque, welcoming the presence of many Ferrari flags in the stands. “Le Mans is a race that I have always watched, it has always made me dream, why not one day…”.
All day, spectators flocked, waiting in long queues in the morning 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.
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, the Italian team but also Porsche, Cadillac and Peugeot have made their return to Le Mans, while waiting for Alpine, BMW or even Lamborghini next year.