Toyota big favorites at 24 Hours Le MansThe Associated Press
LE MANS, France (AP) — After losing to Porsche on the final lap last year, Toyota is back in force at the 24 Hours Le Mans with superfast cars.
Chasing a first victory at the endurance race, Toyota dominated qualifying at the Circuit de la Sarthe, with Kamui Kobayashi breaking the lap record with a time of 3 minutes, 14.791 seconds. That impressive performance was more than two seconds faster than the previous record set by Neel Jani in 2015.
Kobayashi and co-drivers Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin will start on the front row on Saturday alongside the Toyota No. 7 after Kazuki Nakajima posted the second fastest time in 3:17.128.
Toyota has three cars in the race. The No. 9 of Nicolas Lapierre, Yuji Kunimoto and Jose Maria Lopez will start the race from fifth.
"Mike Conway told me the car was perfect, so I set off fully confident and was never bothered by traffic. I had 100 percent confidence in the car and when you're in that frame of mind, you can do great things," said Kobayashi, who drove at an average speed of 251.882 kph.
"It was an incredible lap, the car was amazing, and we went after it without any trouble whatsoever with traffic," Kobayashi said. "It surpassed all our hopes. It's rare to be able to say this, but it was a perfect lap. It's cool to be the fastest in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans."
Porsche defended its title in dramatic fashion last year after Toyota relinquished the lead minutes from the end. With Nakajima behind the wheel of the No. 5 TS050 Hybrid, Toyota was poised to clinch its first Le Mans victory only to lose power and halt on the pit straight with five minutes left — allowing Swiss driver Jani to overtake in his Porsche No. 2.
Jani will start from third on the grid after posting a time of 3:17.259 to finish ahead of the 919 Hybrid No. 2.
"Toyota put in a great performance but we've been happy to concentrate on our race preparation rather than go for single 'qually' laps again at night," Jani said. "That has gone very well for us today so we're looking good for the race."
A year after American actor Brad Pitt got the race underway, Formula One chairman Chase Carey will be the official starter of the 85th edition of the race.