Motor Racing: Peugeot and Toyota the front runners of a day-night duel: Derick Allsop, in Le Mans, on a last stand for motor racing's heavyweight prototypes

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The Independent Online
THE END of an era, the dawn of another; so appropriate they could not have stage-managed this weekend's night and day classic better. And, after the tedious squabbles and wails of pessimism which have darkened recent events, we have the prospect of a Le Mans 24 Hour race to illuminate the sport.

Giant prototypes are giving way to the GTs, but not before one last and potentially magnificent stand. The end of the world championship rendered the monsters obsolete, mere monuments to a bygone age of excess. There are, however, two survivors, Peugeot and Toyota, and their confrontation tops the bill.

Behind them is a battalion of old Group C faithfuls, essentially having their own scrap but lying in wait, just in case and no one will ignore the durable Peugeots. Beyond them, the GT battle should rage, and this will be the focus of much British interest. Jaguar are back, taking on another category of Peugeots.

The huge speed differentials, with the front runners expected to overtake backmarkers every four laps of the 8.45-mile circuit, have given rise to safety concerns. But in a sense the range of machinery and expectations is the essence of endurance racing and of this race in particular. The general mood here is one of anticipation rather than foreboding.

Peugeot's duel with Toyota is likely to be as stirring as any clash of the Titans in the race's history. The French team have pace, reliability, organisation and the experience of winning. Toyota have endeavoured to catch up in every department and, still seeking success here, just might have the greater appetite. They also have perhaps the stronger driver line- up and the switch to Michelin tyres could prove significant.

The Anglo-Japanese team is effectively three teams, each running their own car, whereas the Peugeot trio come under the same umbrella, directed by Jean Todt, soon to take up the reins at the Ferrari Formula One stable. Peugeot will feel the pressure to repeat last year's victory, Toyota to justify massive investment. It's a close call.

For Philippe Alliot, who is in pole position, switching from his Larrousse grand prix car to the Peugeot 905B presents a rare opportunity to run at the front. 'It is my chance to win and that is a nice feeling,' he said. 'It is a very different situation for me. At Larrousse, if I finish sixth it is fantastic; here, if I don't win, it is bad.

'This is probably the last race for these cars, which are as good as Formula One cars, and it's the 70th Le Mans, so it means a lot to us and of course to to Jean Todt. But also it will be difficult. I think it will be won in the pits. The team will have to be good and make no mistakes.

'The difference in speeds will make it very difficult and dangerous in the night, after 15 hours or so. Maybe the driver of the other car is their No 3, a gentleman driver, who finds it very strange. We have to be very attentive. But we have very good drivers, so do Toyota. I think it could be a very special race.'

Not least, as far as British enthusiasts are concerned, because of Jaguar's participation in the GT class, heralded as the future of sports car racing. These machines are, in fact, a throwback to affordable, almost recognisable cars.

Jaguar have three TWR-run XJ220Cs and, among their drivers, one of Britain's brightest young talents, David Coulthard. His longest race so far was one and a half hours and his only experience of night driving is on trips back across the border to his home in Scotland, yet he maintains he is undaunted.

He said: 'I grew out of being scared of the dark quite a few years ago, and driving is driving. It doesn't matter whether you're in a road car or a racing car, really. I've never been in a situation where it's in the car, out of the car, in the car again, so I don't know what it's going to be like. Physically, I think it will be hard, absolute hell.

'I never thought I'd get a chance to do Le Mans so early in my career and I didn't think twice about it. It excites me. I'm probably more excited than the other drivers because it's my first time here.'

LE MANS 24 HOURS RACE (today / tomorrow): Official starting grid: Front row: P Alliot (Fr), M Baldi (It), J-P Jabouille (Fr) Peugeot 905, 3min 24.94sec; M Sekiya (Japan), T Suzuki (Japan), E Irvine (GB) Toyota TS010, 3:26.14.

Second row: Y Dalmas (Fr), T Boutsen (Bel), T Fabi (It) Peugeot 905, 3:27.23; G Lees (GB), J Lammers (Neth), J M Fangio II (Arg) Toyota TS010, 3:28.21.

Third row: P-H Raphanel (Fr), K Acheson (Irl), A Wallace (GB) Toyota TS010, 3:31.55; G Brabham (Aus), C Bouchut (Fr), E Helary (Fr) Peugeot 905, 3:32.08.