Motor Racing: Battle commences as sun sets on the age of the dinosaurs

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The Independent Online
THE two surviving dinosaurs of world sports-car racing roared their defiance deep into the night here last night, serving up a classic Le Mans 24-Hour race. Peugeot and Toyota traded blows and places and the likelihood is they will continue to do so until 4pm this afternoon. Three Peugeots and three Toyotas represent the category one contest here, the last time the 3.5-litre prototypes are expected to run in anger, and both camps are desperate to take the final accolade.

The Peugeot driver Philippe Alliot started on pole and fended off the feared attack from Toyota's Eddie Irvine but went wide at the Mulsanne corner, ran over the kerb and yielded to the Ulsterman. Through a flurry of pit-stops and driver changes, however, Alliot's car retrieved command and built up a 30-second lead.

Alliot said: 'I thought Toyota would be quicker at the beginning but it looks as though we're at the same level. The car is very nice to drive and I'm very happy.'

Irvine, so fresh and on form that he opened with a double stint, said: 'My car is better through the fast corners but he's got the acceleration from the slow corners. I didn't want to take any risks. I was happy to let him do that.'

The pace took its toll and Alliot's car, along with the third Peugeot, lost touch with their colleagues at the front through lengthy pit-stops. Another setback for Toyota, when Irvine's car spent two laps in the pits, was lessened by the promotion of a category two Toyota to fourth place overall. The positions were reversed later in the evening.

The struggle for power was resumed by Thierry Boutsen, in a Peugeot, and Geoff Lees, in a Toyota. For lap after lap, the Belgian was hounded by the Briton, the pair weaving in and out of backmarkers in a breathtaking chase. Lees eventually inherited first place, rather anti-climactically, when Boutsen pulled off. The balance tipped Peugeot's way again when Toyota forfeited more time at a pit-stop.

Jaguar assumed command of the GT class after a stuck throttle held up Hans Stuck's Porsche 911. But Jaguar's lead almost went up in flames as John Nielson scurried away from his pit-stop. Flames leapt from the back of the XJ220. Nielson, partnered by David Coultard and David Brabham, was waved away and returned to the track.

There was no reprieve for another of the three Jaguars. The car was in the pits less than half an hour after the start and eventually retired with a blown head gasket.

The Peugeot-Toyota summit meeting is in keeping with the great duels in the 70-year history of Le Mans and a fitting finale for the monsters of the defunct Sports Car World Championship. These sophisticated, technology-laden cars are effectively Formula One machines with roofs and both concerns have invested massively. Peugeot had the edge last year, but Toyota have made considerable strides in every department since then.

LE MANS 24-HOUR RACE (Le Mans, Fr): Leading positions after six hours: 1 Y Dalmas (Fr), T Boutsen (Bel), T Fabi (It) Peugeot 905 5hr 57min 35.11sec (95 laps); 2 G Lees (GB), J Lammers (Neth), J-M Fangio (Arg) Toyota TS0010 +1min 8.72sec; 3 G Brabham (Aus), C Bouchut (Fr), E Helary (Fr) Peugeot 905 one lap behind; 4 M Sekiya (Japan), T Suzuki (Japan), E Irvine (GB) Toyota TS010 three laps behind; 5 R Ratzenberger (Aut), N Nagasaka (Japan), M Martini (It) Toyota four laps behind.