Nakajima looks to bury Le Mans heartbreak


Le Mans (France) (AFP)

Japanese driver Kazuki Nakajima intends to finish what he started at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, one year after his challenge ended in a heartbreaking defeat just one lap from home.

The 32-year-old was heading for a famous win in the iconic endurance race when his Toyota lost power with just three minutes and one lap left.

The former Williams Formula One driver steered his stricken vehicle home but ended unclassified as Porsche celebrated a second successive triumph.

"Last year we nearly won it with a good fight during the race. But it was painful, sad and hard to forget," said Nakajima who will hope to end Toyota's 30-year wait for victory in the 85th running of the race.

"As a driver, the most important thing is to repeat what I did last year. Porsche weren't good at Silverstone and Spa (in world championship races this season) but they had a different package, and there is little relevance to this race.

"They weren’t quick during the test days but, looking at them yesterday (Wednesday qualifying), their pace was more or less the same as ours. It will be a tough race for us."

Nakajima will share the driving with fellow former F1 drivers, Sebastien Buemi of France and England's Anthony Davidson.

Toyota have three cars in the race -- all of which feature fellow Japanese drivers.

Kamui Kobayashi, who drove for Toyota as well as Sauber and Caterham in Formula One in a five-year world championship career, was second in Le Mans in 2016 after his compatriot's misfortunes.

The 30-year-old was also fifth in 2013 behind the wheel of a Ferrari.

"This is a big race for us and we are all fully motivated," said Kobayashi who was fastest in opening qualifying on Wednesday night.

"I think there is a big opportunity for us this year and we need to make sure everything runs smoothly and we prepare in the right way.

"It is an unbelievably long race which requires the best preparation. After last year, everyone in the team is pushing hard and we will be ready for the challenge.”

Like last year, Kobayashi shares the driving with Englishman Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin of France, a four-time runner-up.

Japanese rookie Yuji Kunimoto completes the Toyota line-up alongside Nicolas Lapierre and Jose Maria Lopez.

"I cannot wait to experience Le Mans for the first time as a driver," said the 26-year-old from Yokohama whose older brother Keisuke won the 2008 Macau Grand Prix.

"Keisuke raced here in 2009 so I know how impressive this event is."

Last year, Porsche won for an 18th time with pole-sitter Neel Jani taking a maiden win with teammates Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas.

The German manufacturer fields two cars this year compared to Toyota's three -- all hybrids.

With factory money behind them, it will be a two-team battle which is not to everyone's liking.

"There is competition between the two manufacturers which is fine but I really hope that in the future more will come," said Australia's former F1 star Mark Webber who will perform the role of Grand Marshall and will starts the race on Saturday afternoon.

"We need these type of cars at the front in terms of image and emotion, so it's essential to find how to keep them."

This weekend, Jani pilots the leading Porsche with Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy.

Swiss driver Jani did hold the lap record for Le Mans with a time of 3min 16.87sec set in 2015 but that was wiped from the books on Thursday when Kobayashi roared to 3min 14.791sec in qualifying.

Around 250,000 fans are expected for the race which starts at 1300GMT Saturday in temperatures of 30 degrees.