Kobayashi puts Toyota on pole for Le Mans 24 Hours

(Reuters) - Kamui Kobayashi put Toyota's number seven car on pole position on Friday for a condensed and rescheduled Le Mans 24 Hour race being held without spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Japanese veteran made sure of the champions' fourth successive pole on a sunny morning at the Sarthe circuit but fell short of his 2017 record of three minutes 14.791 seconds in the TS050 hybrid car.

Kobayashi's fastest lap in the new Hyperpole session was 3:15.267.

"To be honest, a little bit disappointed because on my second attempt it seemed I could break my record," he said of his time.

"Unfortunately, I had the lap deleted (for exceeding track limits), so I had to stop. I was gaining already seven tenths, which is already breaking the record, so it’s a big shame."

Toyota are the only major manufacturer in the top LMP1 category at the 88th running of the event and favourites for a winning hat trick in the last Le Mans outing for the hybrid car before the new hypercar era in 2021.

The gruelling highlight of the world endurance calendar last year drew a crowd of 250,000.

Kobayashi has yet to win it, finishing runner-up in the last two years while compatriot Kazuki Nakajima stood on top of the podium with number eight car team mates Sebastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso.

The number eight Toyota, with Nakajima at the wheel, qualified only third this time with Rebellion Racing's number one R13 Gibson car splitting the two Japanese.

American Gustavo Menezes time in the Rebellion was a Le Mans record by a non-hybrid LMP1 car.

Rebellion's number three car qualified fourth.

Nakajima is partnered this year again by experienced Swiss Buemi while New Zealander Brendon Hartley replaces Spaniard Alonso.

Kobayashi remains alongside Britain's Mike Conway and Argentina's Jose Maria Lopez, leaders of the endurance championship after six of eight races.

Friday's 30 minute hyperpole session featured 23 of the 59 entrants -- the top six in the four classes after a preliminary qualifying session on Thursday.

There are only five entries in the LMP1 category in a race that also features two all-female crews.

Postponed from June, the race will be waved away at 1230 GMT on Saturday by Peugeot boss Carlos Tavares.

Because of the later date, nearly half of the race will be held in darkness -- some three hours and 40 minutes more than mid-June.

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

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