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Motor racing-Toyota and Ferrari battle for the lead at Le Mans

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(Reuters) – Defending champions Toyota and pole-sitters Ferrari were locked in battle after U.S. basketball great LeBron James waved the French flag to start the centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday.

The number eight Toyota hypercar, with Sebastien Buemi at the wheel and an unchanged lineup from last year’s winning crew, led the 51 Ferrari driven by Britain’s James Calado by 4.6 seconds after the opening hour at the Sarthe circuit.

The number 50 Ferrari that Italian Antonio Fuoco qualified on Thursday on pole, the marque’s first at Le Mans as a works team in 50 years and which ended Toyota’s run of six, started with Denmark’s Nicklas Nielsen driving.

The safety cars came out after Jack Aitken crashed the 311 Action Express Cadillac at the first chicane exit on a damp opening lap and ploughed into the metal barriers, scattering debris.

The Briton was able to nurse the damaged car back to the pits, despite a broken front left suspension, with mechanics working to get it back out.

Buemi took the lead before the race was neutralised and Toyota ran one-two briefly after racing resumed, with Mike Conway in the number 7 car, and before pitstops shook up the order once again.

The 62-car field was led to the start flag by nine times winner and grand marshall Tom Kristensen of Denmark. Tickets for the race sold out in December with more than 300,000 due to attend.

Toyota have won the past five editions of the endurance race.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ken Ferris)

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