LE MANS, France: Japanese driver Kazuki Nakajima intends to finish what he started at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, one year after his challenge ended in a heartbreaking defeat just one lap from home.
The 32-year-old was heading for a famous win in the iconic endurance race when his Toyota lost power with just three minutes and one lap left.
The former Williams Formula One driver steered his stricken vehicle home but ended unclassified as Porsche celebrated a second successive triumph.
“Last year we nearly won it with a good fight. But it was painful, sad and hard to forget,” said Nakajima who will hope to end Toyota’s 30-year wait for victory in the 85th running of the race.
Nakajima shares the driving with fellow former F1 drivers, Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland and England’s Anthony Davidson.
Their car will set off in second on Saturday behind the Toyota driven like last year by Nakajima’s compatriot Kamui Kobayashi, Briton Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin of France, a four-time runner-up.
Former F1 driver Kobayashi took pole in the TS050 Hybrid in record style, clocking 3min 14.791sec on Thursday to beat the previous best lap of 3min 16.887sec set by Neel Jani of Switzerland in a Porsche two years ago.
“It is nice to have the pole position. It was just the greatest moment but now the toughest is ahead of us,” said Kobayashi, second in 2016 after his compatriot’s misfortunes.
“To start on the front is very good we are 1-2 and in race pace we have a good balance,” added Kobayashi, who drove for Toyota as well as Sauber and Caterham in F1 in a five-year world championship career.
“It is an unbelievably long race which requires the best preparation. After last year, everyone in the team is pushing hard and we will be ready for the challenge.”
Toyota, Porsche duel
Nakajima predicts a tough battle with Porsche, who qualified in third and fourth.
“As a driver, the most important thing is to repeat what I did last year. Porsche weren’t good at Silverstone and Spa (in world championship races this season) but they had a different package, and there is little relevance to this race,” said Nakajima.
“They weren’t quick during the test days but, looking at them yesterday (Wednesday qualifying), their pace was more or less the same as ours. It will be a tough race for us.”
Japanese rookie Yuji Kunimoto completes the Toyota line-up alongside Nicolas Lapierre and Jose Maria Lopez, with this third Toyota qualifying in fifth.
“I cannot wait to experience Le Mans for the first time as a driver,” said the 26-year-old from Yokohama whose older brother Keisuke won the 2008 Macau Grand Prix.
“Keisuke raced here in 2009 so I know how impressive this event is.”
Last year, Porsche won for an 18th time with pole-sitter Jani taking a maiden win with teammates Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas.
The German manufacturer fields two cars this year compared to Toyota’s three — all hybrids.
With factory money behind them, it will be a two-team battle which is not to everyone’s liking.
“There is competition between the two manufacturers which is fine but I really hope that in the future more will come,” said Australia’s former F1 star Mark Webber, who will perform the role of Grand Marshall and will start the race on Saturday afternoon.
“We need these type of cars at the front in terms of image and emotion, so it’s essential to find how to keep them.”
This weekend, Jani pilots the leading Porsche with Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy.
Around 250,000 fans are expected for the race which starts at 1300GMT Saturday in temperatures of 30 degrees.