Motor Sports

Audi leads 24 Hours of Le Mans

French Benoit Treluyer drives his Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro Hybrid during the 80th edition of Le Mans 24 hours endurance race, on June 17, 2012 in Le Mans, western France. (AFP PHOTO / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

LE MANS, France: Audi was in position to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the 11th time, with its cars in the top three spots Sunday afternoon.

Its main rival, Toyota, fell out of contention after its two cars retired.

In the 22nd hour, defending champion Benoit Treluyer's Audi No. 1 had completed 337 laps to lead Allan McNish's Audi No. 2 by a lap.

Oliver Jarvis aboard Audi No. 4 was in third place, three laps off the pace. Neel Jani was a distant fourth in Lola No. 12, ten laps behind Treluyer.

The two leading Audis have swapped the lead since the 14th hour when Marcel Fassler briefly surrendered the lead to McNish after spinning his Audi No. 1 at the Porsche curves, where the car clipped the wall but only sustained light damage.

Fatigue combined with aggressive tactics led to driver mistakes that could have been costly for both Audis.

Fassler skidded into the gravel in the 18th hour and needed to change the rear bodywork on his car. McNish was leading in the 22nd hour when he crashed into a wall at the Porsche curves, damaging the nose of his Audi No. 2 and forcing the deployment of the safety car for the third time.

But Toyota was not nearly as fortunate in avoiding major damage to its cars as the German manufacturer.

At the end of the fifth hour, Ferrari No. 81 bumped into Toyota No. 8, driven by Anthony Davidson and running third. The Toyota became airborne before slamming into the tire barrier, forcing the safety car to come out for the first time.

The race was held up for 75 minutes to clean up the track and remove wrecks of both cars at the Mulsanne corner.

Davidson suffered fractures to two vertebrae but was in stable condition.

"Well that was a big one! Lying in a French hospital with a broken back," Davidson tweeted. "(It) wasn't what I had in mind at this stage in the race."

Before the safety car came on, Nicolas Lapierre in his Toyota No. 7 passed Treluyer's Audi No. 1 that had been leading from the start. But Audi No. 1 took advantage of pit stops to recapture the lead while the safety car was on the track.

"We were setting a good pace and I think that leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans shows the work done by the team since the beginning of the project," Lapierre said. "We will continue to push to gain the maximum experience from this race."

Toyota had its only remaining car damaged when the race resumed. Kazuki Nakajima's Toyota No. 7 attempted a risky pass and collided with the Nissan DeltaWing in the seventh hour. Nakajima damaged the rear of his car and his crew wasted a lot of time to repair it before finally throwing in the towel in the 11th hour.

"It was a real disappointment to end the race early," Nakajima said. "Our dream was to see the chequered flag."

Audi also had a scare in the fifth hour when Romain Dumas' Audi No. 3 went wide at the Forza chicane and crashed into a tire barrier. However, Dumas was able to drive back to the pits for repairs.

The German manufacturer had made the best of the rolling start to take the top three spots when Allan McNish's Audi No. 2 overtook Stephane Sarrazin's Toyota No. 8 in the opening lap to take third.

But Audi No. 3, in second place, suffered a puncture and Audi No. 2 had a rear suspension problem. Both went to the pits, allowing the Toyota cars to make up ground.

Audi has won seven of the last eight races at Le Mans. Peugeot was able to disrupt the dominance of the German manufacturer in 2009.

Toyota was returning to the world's most famous endurance race, 13 years after its last participation. The Japanese manufacturer only started its testing program in January but made quick progress to become Audi's main challenger at Le Mans.

"Motorsport can be a rollercoaster of emotions and we experienced great joy to see Nicolas taking the lead of Le Mans, only for the shock of Anthony's accident," Toyota team president Yoshiaki Kinoshita said. "It was a huge relief to hear he is okay."

A total of 56 cars started the 80th edition of the French endurance race, which will end Sunday afternoon.





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