LE MANS, France (Reuters) - Defending champions Porsche seized a significant lead in the 24 Hours of Le Mans sportscar race after the pace-setting Toyota suffered terminal reliability problems in the early hours of Sunday.
With a stream of headlights piercing the darkness at the Circuit de la Sarthe, the leading number seven Toyota slowed as Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi sought to engage gear.
“I cannot move, I cannot move,” complained the former Formula One driver, who had led Britain’s Nick Tandy in the number one Porsche by more than a lap as the race hit the midnight mark.
Kobayashi got the car moving slowly before it again stopped, this time for good, with the driver climbing out and walking away.
Former winner Tandy took over at the front and moved three laps clear of France’s Nicolas Lapierre in the number nine Toyota.
Toyota’s number eight TS050 hybrid car had already been sidelined for more than an hour and a half with mechanics working feverishly to replace the front motor and battery. It eventually resumed, 30 laps adrift and in 54th place.
Porsche, who started with only two cars to Toyota’s three in the top LMP1 category, also had issues of their own with the number two car dropping out of contention after suffering a front axle problem.
Toyota have been five times runners-up in 18 failed attempts at Le Mans but this year had been tipped to become only the second Japanese manufacturer -- after Mazda in 1991 -- to win the French race.
They came agonisingly close to winning last year but a last lap power failure on Kazuki Nakajima’s leading car handed the victory to Porsche.
Nakajima is back at Le Mans this year, sharing the driving of the stricken number eight car with Britain’s Anthony Davidson and Switzerland’s Sebastien Buemi.
Toyota have won the first two rounds of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship, which has Le Mans as its jewel in the crown with a crowd of around 300,000, and started on pole on Saturday after a record qualifying lap.
Kobayashi, who shared the number seven car with Britain’s Mike Conway and France’s Stephane Sarrazin, had lapped the circuit on Thursday with the fastest time on record - an average speed of 251.882kph.
With once-dominant Audi pulling out after last year’s race, the 2017 edition became a straightforward battle between the two carmakers.
The only other LMP1 entrant is the number four ByKolles Racing ENSO and that retired in the second hour after Britain’s Oliver Webb hit the wall on the opening lap.
Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, who holds the record for most Formula One races started, made his debut in a Racing Team Nederland Dallara LMP2 car.
In the process, the 45-year-old became the 40th driver to compete at Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix.
The race was started by Formula One chairman Chase Carey waving a gold tassled French flag with FIA head Jean Todt and Automobile Club de l‘Ouest president Pierre Fillon in attendance.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ed Osmond/Peter Rutherford