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Le Mans 24 Hours race starts with relief but no crowd

LE MANS, France (Reuters) – The 24 Hours of Le Mans started behind closed doors on Saturday, a sad first for a race approaching its centenary but with organisers thankful at least to have some action.

Last year saw 250,000 spectators, many of them British motor racing fans, flock to the Sarthe circuit in north-west France but the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the 88th edition is crowd-free.

“My feeling today is that it’s a success and I’m very happy for all the teams and all the people who are working to organise this race,” Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) president Pierre Fillon told reporters in a Zoom news conference.

“Of course, we were very afraid not to be able to have the race.

“It was no question to cancel the race because with the economic model for the competitors it would be so difficult for them. So today I am very proud that we achieved the race.”

Le Mans is the world’s oldest sportscar race, and the jewel in the crown of the World Endurance Championship (WEC), having been first held in 1923.

Reigning champions Toyota, chasing a hat-trick of victories, were one-two after the first four hours and trading the lead.

New Zealander Brendon Hartley was leading at the wheel of the number seven car while Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi, who started on pole position, was driving the number eight car some 16 seconds behind.

Toyota are the only major manufacturer in the top LMP1 category, with the main challenge provided by Swiss-based Rebellion Racing.

Their number one car driven by American Gustavo Menezes was in third place but a lap down.

This year’s race is the last for the Toyota TS050 hybrid, with the World Endurance Championship (WEC) starting a new Hypercar era in 2021.

The race was officially started by Peugeot boss Carlos Tavares, with the French brand — winners at Le Mans in 1992, 1993 and 2008 — set to return in 2022 as challengers for outright victory.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ian Chadband)

Reference