24 hours of Le Mans: Audi leads, but driver dies

24 hours of Le Mans: Danish driver Allan Simonsen was killed in the first 10 minutes of the race. The Audi team was in the lead but two cars faced mechanical problems some six hours into the 24 hours of Le Mans, which will end Sunday.

Audi held the early top three spots Saturday in the 24 Hours of Le Mans which was marred by the death of Danish driver Allan Simonsen at the start of the endurance event.

It was the first driver fatality at Le Mans since 1997. Organizers said the 34-year-old Simonsen was taken to the hospital after his Aston Martin No. 95 spun at high speed only 10 minutes into the race and his car skidded into the barrier at the Tertre Rouge corner where cars typically reach speeds of up to 170 kph (105 mph).

Simonsen died at the hospital soon after arrival "due to his injuries," organizers said.

Aston Martin Racing, which had entered five Vantage V8 cars between the GTE-Pro and GTE-Am classes, will continue in the race "at the specific request" of Simonsen's family and in tribute to the Danish driver.

"I would like to extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the individuals, and families whose friends or loved ones were involved in today's terrible tragedy," Aston Martin Racing managing director John Gaw said.

The safety car came out after Simonsen's crash and the race was held up for nearly an hour to repair the guard rail.

Simonsen was participating for the seventh time at the endurance race, which is won by the team that completes the most laps in 24 hours with up to three drivers alternating. He finished second in the GT2 class at Le Mans three years ago. He clocked the fastest time in qualifying Thursday in the GTE Am class.

Simonsen and Danish co-drivers Kristian Poulsen and Christoffer Nygaard were leading the GTE Am class in the world endurance championship after topping their category at Silverstone in April and finishing second in Spa-Francorchamps last month.

"Aston Martin Racing will not make any further comment until the precise circumstances of the accident have been determined. Next of kin have been informed," Simonsen's team said.

IndyCar series leader Helio Castroneves tweeted: "Very sad to know about the fatal accident of Allan Simonsen on Le Mans today. Praying for him and (his) family."

After the crash, drivers were kept in a holding pattern in which cars had to stay in their positions for nearly an hour plus the first pit stops were made.

At the wheel of Audi No. 1, defending champion Andre Lotterer of Germany led pole-sitter Allan McNish's Audi No. 2 by 26 seconds after 20 laps. Lucas Di Grassi's Audi No. 3 was in third place, followed by two Toyota cars.

But six hours into the race, the No. 1 and No. 3 Audi cars were experiencing mechanical problems Saturday.

Audi is seeking a 12th title at the world's most famous endurance race. It is second for most victories by a manufacturer, behind Porsche's 16.

A total of 56 cars started in the 81st edition of Le Mans, which will end at 1300 GMT on Sunday. The race can be watched live online.

Sebastien Enjolras lost his life in pre-qualifying in 1997. The last driver fatality in the 24-hour race was Jo Gartner in 1986.

The worst crash in Le Mans history occurred in 1955 when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes flew into the crowd, killing more than 80 spectators.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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