LE MANS, France (Reuters) - Force India Formula One driver Nico Hulkenberg led his first Le Mans 24 Hours race on Saturday before handing over to Porsche team mate Nick Tandy as the battle with champions Audi raged through the night.
The number 19 car that Hulkenberg shares with Briton Tandy and New Zealand’s Earl Bamber led as the clock ticked past midnight but after 10 hours of high-speed action there was little to separate the two German manufacturers.
Both marques, part of the Volkswagen stable, traded the lead as the pitstops came and went.
Mark Webber, the former Red Bull Formula One driver, had earlier been in the driving seat of the number 17 Porsche as the race reached the quarter distance with the Australian leading the way.
However, Webber was handed a one-minute ‘stop and go’ penalty after the eight-hours mark for overtaking under yellow warning flags through a slow zone imposed around the Mulsanne corner following the third safety car interlude of the race.
As the race headed into Sunday, Tandy led the number nine and seven Audis with Webber’s Porsche, shared with New Zealander Brendon Hartley and Germany’s Timo Bernhard, lapping in fourth place.
Defending champions Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler had also led in the number seven Audi as the three drivers chase their fourth win together.
Porsche had swept the top three places in qualifying thanks to their lightning one lap pace but Audi showed they were formidable foes and just as quick in race trim.
The safety cars, three of them to cope with the long Le Mans lap, made their first appearance at the end of the first hour when a three car collision dumped oil on the track at the first chicane.
There was a much longer safety car interlude at the end of the third hour, when Frenchman Loic Duval spun and hit the barriers in the number eight Audi at the Indianapolis corner, with Porsche then filling the top three slots.
Duval managed to nurse the car back to the pits and it resumed the race only four minutes later, with the safety car leading for 45 minutes.
Nine times winner Tom Kristensen, the great Dane who retired last year, had waved the 83rd edition of the race away in bright sunshine, watched by an estimated crowd of around 250,000 spectators enjoying the festival atmosphere.
Audi have been the dominant team at Le Mans, and are now chasing a 14th win in 16 years, with their diesel hybrid car but face a tough battle from Porsche, who returned with a full factory effort last year.
Porsche have triumphed 16 times, with their last win coming in 1998.
Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Justin Palmer/Peter Rutherford