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Sports

Le Mans 24 hours roars to life for 87th edition of world’s greatest race

media British driver Mike Conway (L) steers his Toyota, ahead German driver Andre Lotterer (C) in his Rebellion, during the second qualifying practice session at Le Mans, northwestern France, on 13 June 2019. Jean-Francois MONIER / AFP

Lights are out and racing is underway at the Circuit de La Sarthe for the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race, with an all-Toyota front row led by the #7 car of trio of Mike Conway, Kamui Koboyashi and Jose Maria Lopez.

Second after Thursday’s qualifying is the #8 car of last year’s winners Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and former Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso.

The 37-year-old Spaniard is hoping to add back-to-back Le Mans 24 Hour titles to his two F1 trophies in his last appearance at the classic race.

Alonso is one of the main drawcards at the 2019 event, despite an almost certain win for the Toyota hybrids – barring an accident – as the Japanese Gazoo Racing  team is the only factory outfit in the top LMP1 category.

But it’s far from just the elite prototype class that brings the 250,000 spectators to the northwest of France for the Le Mans 24 Hours, with professional race drivers mixing it with amateurs in the other categories.

The top starter in the LMP2 class is the #28 TDS Racing Oreca of François Perrodo, Loïc Duval and Mattheiu Vaxiviere.

Aston Martin took top spot in the GTE Pro class thanks to Marco Sorensen who put the #95 Vantage ahead of Ford, Corvette and Porsche.

Porsche also locked out the top three places in GTE Am, with Matteo Cairoli taking pole in the #88 Dempsey-Proton car.

Epic race

The clock began counting down at 3pm local time, with drivers, mechanics, tacticians and fans set for a dramatic 24 hours ahead in the quest for endurance of man and machine.

Teams have to manage mechanical parameters, tyre temperature, constant overtaking among differently powered cars. Add to that varying weather conditions, with rain an almost perennial visitor, which compounds the difficulty of all the previous tasks.

And sunset and sunrise on Sunday throw up a new set of challenges, with the low angle of the light hampering the vision of the drivers through bug and rubber-spattered windshields.

But the biggest challenge remains fatigue. While drivers are limited in each stint at the wheel, negotiating the 13.6 km of the mythical Circuit de La Sarthe at speeds of up to 320 km/h (in the top category) for a dozen or more laps at a time is a workout to push the fittest of athletes to the limit. And the night hours guarantee lapses in concentration – and accidents.

Inspiration

The drama of the Le Mans 24 Hours has captured the imagination of many over the decades, including legendary figures like Steve McQueen, starring in Lee H. Katzin's 1971 film, or actor Paul Newman, who raced and came second in the 1979 edition.

And a new film is set for release soon – Le Mans '66, with Matt Damon and Christian Bale, tells the story of car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles fighting corporate interference as they sought to build a new race car for Ford in order to challenge Ferrari at Le Mans. 

 
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