Audi leads the Le Mans 24 Hours at the three hour mark after a dramatic start to the 76th edition of the race that saw main rivals Peugeot run into problems at La Sarthe.

A quadruple stint from Allan McNish allowed the #2 car to head the pack as the clock hit 6pm in France but only following issues that delayed all three of the Peugeots which had led the opening hours.

Indeed in the early laps, the three Peugeots were able to pull away at the front, despite McNish briefly getting ahead of the #7 car of Nicolas Minassian off the line, although the Frenchman was able to quickly retake the position from the Audi. Out front, Pedro Lamy held the lead ahead of Frank Montagny through the early laps with the pair pulling away from Minassian in third, who in turn was comfortably pulling away from McNish.

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McNish himself was easily the quickest of the Audis and was pulling ahead of both Lucas Luhr and Frank Biela in the sister R10s, Biela having battled ahead of the Charouz Lola Aston Martin after the first two laps of the race.

With the pace out front being in the low 3m 20s marker, it didn't take long for the leaders to get into traffic and by the end of lap four, the Peugeots were amongst the GT2 runners which saw the gap between the top-two yo-yo up to five seconds.

The Peugeots were the first cars to pit, coming in a lap ahead of the first of the Audis, but following the pit stops it remained the same amongst the top six, although further back there was a chance amongst the petrol runners as the Pescarolo of Jean-Christophe Boullion emerged from the pitstops having got ahead of the Dome, the #5 Courage-Oreca and the Lola Aston, which had slipped down to tenth place.

The Lola Aston soon started to make its way back up the order but hit problems in the second hour when Jan Charouz went off going into the Dunlop Curve and severely damaged the car, although he managed to finally bring the car back to the pits where the car underwent lengthy repairs before rejoining the race way down the order.

While Peugeot elected to change drivers during the second hour, with Stephane Sarrazin, Christian Klien and Jacques Villeneuve stepping into the top three cars, McNish continued in the Audi and was able to stay in touch before the Peugeots then hit problems in the third hour of the race.

Firstly, Sarrazin brought the lead car in to change over to Alex Wurz only for a gearbox issue to force the team to take the car back into the garage where it would lose over 20 minutes undergoing repairs and drop outside the top 20, while Villeneuve then pitted early in the #7 with a puncture. Capping a tough 20 minutes for the team, the #9 was then black-flagged due to a broken headlight and then had a drive-through penalty a lap later which handed the lead to the #2 Audi - which McNish finally handed over to Dindo Capello late in the third hour.

With the Audi leading from the two other delayed Peugeots, Audi held the advantage heading into hour four with the #3 and #1 Audis holding fourth and fifth.

The petrol runners at the end of hour three were led by the Dome in sixth place from the first of the ORECA-Matmut entries and the #16 Pescarolo - which had suffered an incident with one of the Epsilon Euskadi cars at the end of the lap and suffered a spin at the entry of pitlane. The top ten was then completed by the second ORECA-Matmut car of Panis, Fassler and Pagenaud.

In LMP2, the first three hours became a battle between the two RS Syders with the van Merksteijn car and the similar Team Essex entry swapping position on numerous occasions but with the Dutch car seeming to have the edge as it was able to make its tyres last longer than the Essex machine.

Elsewhere in class, there were early issues for the Speedy Sebah Lola, although it had rebounded to third in class by the end of the lap ahead of an intriguing battle for third between the Embassy Racing and Barazi-Epsilon teams. Two LMP2 teams were in big trouble in the opening hours and both after coming together with the #12 LMP1 Charouz/Cytosport Lola. Tommy Erdos ended up in the wall on the Mulsanne after being tagged by Greg Pickett and was forced to return slower to the pits where the RML squad repaired the car - losing twelve laps in the process - while Karim Ojjeh would later be caught up with the Lola at the Porsche Curves in an accident which caused hefty damage to the Trading Performance Zytek.

GT1 had been led by the Corvettes during the opening hour with Jan Magnussen building a healthy lead over Oliver Gavin with the two works Aston Martins in third and fourth. However, in the second hour, Brabham managed to split the Corvettes and having handed the car over to Antonio Garcia, the Spaniard had moved into the class lead by the end of the third hour, ahead of the two Corvettes and the second works car. Problems for the Larbre Saleen in the third hour saw Christophe Bouchut lose a wheel at the Dunlop Curves and return slower to the pits having slipped down the order, while the IPB Spartak Lamborghini lost time in the opening hour with a differential problem.

GT2 was led at the end of the third hour by the Risi Ferrari with Jaime Melo at the wheel of the car from the chasing Porsche from Wolf Henzler with the BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari in third place. The AF Corse Ferrari held fourth ahead of the Virgo Motorsport car which lost time in the pits when Rob Bell was hit by the Team Modena Aston Martin causing some damage to the back of the car.

The Porsches of the Flying Lizard and IMSA Performance cars made contact during the second hour and although Seth Neiman got the Lizards car back to the pits, Pat Long was left in the gravel trap and seemingly out of the race.