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Motor racing-Ferrari and Toyota battle for Le Mans centenary win

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(Reuters) – Ferrari led defending champions Toyota into the final three hours of the centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans on Sunday with only 14 seconds separating the cars after an enthralling battle through the night at the Sarthe circuit.

The number 51 Ferrari 499P car shared by Italian Alessandro Pier Guidi, Britain’s James Calado and ex-Formula One racer Antonio Giovinazzi was setting the pace but the outcome was too close to call.

The number eight Toyota GR010 hybrid, the Japanese manufacturer’s only car in the running after the number seven retired during the night, had been only 5.5 seconds behind as the clock ticked towards noon.

The Toyota is shared by last year’s winning crew Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland, New Zealander Brendon Hartley and Japan’s Ryo Hirakawa.

Buemi is chasing his fifth Le Mans win while Toyota have their sights set on a sixth win in succession in the world’s greatest sportscar race, now in its 91st edition since the first run in 1923.

The number two Cadillac driven by New Zealand’s two times winner Earl Bamber and Britons Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook was in third place but a lap down.

The number 94 Peugeot that had led into the early hours of Sunday was down in 10th after crashing during the night with the French manufacturer’s sister 93 car in fifth place and two laps behind.

The number seven Toyota retired after being involved in a collision with Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi, also principal of the endurance team, at the wheel with 103 laps gone.

“I had both tyres punctured on the rear and the left rear driveshaft was broken so I had no drive to return,” he said after getting out.

Ferrari started with both the 50 and 51 cars on the front row, a first in 50 years for the Italian marque returning as a factory outfit.

The 50 car with Italian Antonio Fuoco, Denmark’s Nicklas Nielsen and Spaniard Miguel Molina was in seventh place.

Hollywood actor Michael Fassbender slammed his Porsche 911 into the tyre barrier in the Porsche curves and retired after nearly 20 hours.

The NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro stock car run by Hendrick Motorsports with seven-times Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button was running 34th overall of 62 starters.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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