Porsche in control at Le Mans, torment for Toyota

Porsche were en route to a 19th Le Mans triumph on Sunday as Toyota's hopes of claiming a maiden win in the iconic 24 hour race went up in smoke.

Swiss driver Neel Jani drives his Porsche 919 during the 85th Le Mans endurance race in western France, on June 18, 2017 © (AFP)

Swiss driver Neel Jani drives his Porsche 919 during the 85th Le Mans endurance race in western France, on June 18, 2017 © (AFP)

Porsche were en route to a 19th Le Mans triumph on Sunday as Toyota's hopes of claiming a maiden win in the iconic 24 hour race went up in smoke.

The Japanese constructor had invested heavily in this year's edition with hopes high that one of their three-car challenge would finally deliver an elusive first win on the fabled Sarthe circuit.

And as night fell on Saturday Toyota were sitting pretty with the car of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin holding a comfortable lead.

But then disaster struck. With Kobayashi behind the wheel his hybrid car limped out of contention with clutch problems, leaving Porsche out in front.

The Toyota of Japanese rookie Yuji Kunimoto, Nicolas Lapierre and Jose Maria Lopez took second, a lap off the pace, but they too hit disaster after being shunted in the Dunlop Chicane and being sent flying into a gravel trap.

It looked as if Lapierre the driver at the time might have suffered just a puncture and cosmetic damage, but as he tried to limp back to the pits smoke from the back of the car signalled it was terminal.

"Le Mans is truly a ruthless race," said Pierre Fillon, president of race organiser Automobile Club de l'Ouest.

That left them with one car still out on the track, driven by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima.

Buemi had been forced to pit just before the end of the eight-hour mark with engine trouble with some reports of flames flying from the brakes.

Buemi had been running in second after a daring move had taken him past Porsche.

It was tough on Buemi's teammate Nakajima, who was denied victory a year ago when his race-leading Toyota suffered a mechanical meltdown on the last lap of the gruelling race.

With Davidson behind the wheel Toyota's last shot at the Le Mans bullseye was placed 13th, 27 laps behind the Porsche of defending champion Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy.

With four hours to go and Tandy in charge Porsche led the Oreca-Gibson representing Jackie Chan Racing by a massive 14 laps.

Around 250,000 fans were watching the action unfold at the Sarthe circuit including tennis superstar Maria Sharapova, one of Porsche's leading sponsorship figures.

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