- Associated Press - Friday, June 15, 2012

LE MANS, FRANCE (AP) - Toyota is facing an uphill struggle to prevent champions Audi from again winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend.

The Japanese manufacturer is returning to the world’s most famous endurance race 13 years after its last participation.

Defending champions Andre Lotterer of Germany, Marcel Fassler of Switzerland and Benoit Treluyer of France secured pole position in Audi No. 1 after Lotterer clocked the fastest time in qualifying Thursday.

“I am very pleased with the work of the team,” said Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Sport. “But nothing is preordained, the first Toyota is not very far from us, less than two seconds.”

Marc Gene of Spain and Frenchmen Romain Dumas and Loic Duval will start from the front row in Audi No. 3.

But the two German cars will be under the pressure from Toyota No. 8 driven by Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland, Stephane Sarrazin of France and Anthony Davidson of Britain, who posted the third fastest time in qualifying.

“I think we surprised some people as we are so close to pole position,” Davidson said. “I actually still think that we have a stronger race car than a qualifying car. Le Mans is a very tough race but if we have no problems, if all is going well, we can be on the podium.”

Audi has won seven of the last eight races at Le Mans. Peugeot was able to disrupt the dominance of the German manufacturer in 2009. The rivalry reached its height last year when Audi only beat Peugeot by 14 seconds.

However, Peugeot decided in January to shut down its racing program because of economic reasons.

“When they pulled out, it left all of us without a drive, relatively late into the racing year,” said Davidson, who finished fourth aboard a Peugeot last year. “I had nothing at the end of January and got in touch with Toyota and, luckily, here I am.”

Toyota only started its testing program in January but it has made quick progress to become Audi’s main challenger at Le Mans.

“Everyone has worked so hard to get here and at times it has been challenging,” Toyota team president Yoshiaki Kinoshita said. “Two cars in the top five is a real achievement for this team’s first race.”

Toyota had three runner-up finishes at Le Mans, but it never won the race. The only Japanese manufacturer that clinched victory is Mazda in 1991.

“How can you compete against 10 years of Audi domination when you’ve only had five months of work?” said Alexander Wurz, with Toyota No. 7 fifth on the grid. “We’re definitely here to give them a hard time but I think it might not be enough to win.”

Tom Kristensen will seek a record ninth Le Mans title. The Danish driver clocked the fourth fastest time in his Audi No. 2 on Thursday.

The 80th edition of the race starts on Saturday.


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