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Motor racing-Toyota down to one car as Peugeot lead Le Mans

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(Reuters) -Peugeot led the centenary Le Mans 24 Hours race into Sunday morning after reigning champions Toyota lost one of their two cars and Ferrari spun out of the lead in tricky conditions.

With more than eight hours gone at the Sarthe circuit, the number 94 Peugeot with Nico Muller at the wheel had a 90-second lead over the pole-setting number 50 Ferrari before pitting under safety car conditions.

The number seven Toyota shared by Kamui Kobayashi, Britain’s Mike Conway and Argentina’s Jose Maria Lopez stopped on the Mulsanne straight with the Japanese trying to continue but finally giving up and getting out.

Organisers said the car was involved in an incident at Tertre Rouge.

Toyota are seeking a sixth successive win but their hopes now rest on the number eight car that triumphed last year with Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland, New Zealander Brendon Hartley and Japan’s Ryo Hirakawa.

That car was still very much in the reckoning with 15 hours remaining.

Ferrari’s Italian Alessandro Pier Guidi had led Muller by 47 seconds in the Italian marque’s 51 car but spun off at the first chicane on the Mulsanne straight, requiring assistance to get going again.

Britain’s Nick Tandy had led in the number 75 Porsche Penske 963 entry as the clock reached six hours, but he pitted soon after with the Hypercar hierarchy far from settled and rain falling.

The opening hours were punctuated by occasional rain and a track dry in places and wet elsewhere.

“It was very difficult to keep the car on track,” said Spaniard Miguel Molina who shares the 50 Ferrari with Italian Antonio Fuoco and Denmark’s Nicklas Nielsen.

“We are trying to avoid any risk or anything…maybe the people forget a bit that it’s a 24 hour race.”

The number 38 non-factory Jota Porsche 963 led in the fifth hour but China’s Ye Yifei crashed heavily at the Porsche Curves with the car’s rear bodywork torn off in the sideways impact with the tyre wall.

The car spent 20 minutes in the garage before returning to the track.

Toyota had led the 51 Ferrari by 4.6 seconds at the first hour marker after U.S. basketball great LeBron James waved the French flag to start the race.

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.

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.

The 62-car field was led to the start flag by nine-times winner and grand marshall Tom Kristensen of Denmark in front of more than 300,000 spectators.

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

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