German driver Rene Rast led for Audi in the 24 Hours Le Mans ahead of Porsche drivers Mark Webber of Australia and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany, eight hours into the race on Saturday night.
French President Francois Hollande was present for the start before heading back to Paris for the Top 14 rugby final.
With less than one hour of the race gone, one of Porsche’s 919 hybrid cars – driven by Frenchman Patrick Pilet – was caught in a crash, and the race was held up briefly as a safety car came out in what proved to be an action-packed opening few hours.
The crash happened when Swiss driver Alexandre Imperatori lost control of his Rebellion Racing car at the Forza Motorsport chicane, because of oil on the track. His car hit Jonny Kane’s Strakka Racing car and impacted on Pilet, who could not get his Porsche out of the way.
Flames spewed from the back of Pilet’s car as it made its way back to the garage. With the engine broken, the race was over for Pilet and co-drivers Fred Makowiecki of France and Wolf Henzler of Germany.
It’s very disappointing because we’ve been preparing for a year and we wanted to take our revenge here,” said Pilet, who was unharmed. “Given all the effort the team has made it’s a disappointment, but motor racing is cruel.”
With Audi and Porsche swapping the lead, Audi’s No. 8 car driven by Frenchman Loic Duval got caught out by slow zone traffic, tangled with a Ferrari, hit a crash barrier, and lost its nose, bringing out the safety car for a second time.
“I tried to slip through a narrow gap but I couldn’t quite make it,” Duval said.
Thanks to some frantic work by the garage mechanics, the car was soon back out.
After about five hours of racing, another Porsche – driven by Christian Ried – had to pull over with some flames coming out of the back.
The tussle between the race’s two major teams continued and, following a pit stop, Rast reclaimed the lead from Webber, who finished third three times in Formula One behind Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Porsche, the most successful manufacturer at Le Mans with 16 titles, had its trio of 919 Hybrids on the top three positions of the grid after Neel Jani, Romain Dumas, and Marc Lieb posted the fastest times in qualifying. Audi sealed the next three spots.