Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley celebrate their spectacular comeback win at the 85th Le Mans 24 Hours. Picture: Dave Abrahams

Le Mans, France - Porsche has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the third consecutive year with a stunning last-to-first victory in a race of retirements that left early favourite Toyota nursing more heartache.

Porsche's 19th outright win at the Circuit de la Sarthe followed a night of drama with Toyota's top two cars retiring and the No.1 Porsche also suffering a terminal problem while leading with four hours to go.

That left the No.2 Porsche, shared by German Timo Bernhard and New Zealanders Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber, to move surprisingly back into contention after being at the back of the field on Saturday.

The trio's chances had been written off by team bosses when the car suffered front axle problems and spent 65 minutes in the garage before rejoining some 22 laps adrift of the leading Toyota.

Bernhard, a winner with Audi in 2010, who did the final stint to take the chequered flag, said afterwards: "It can be the cruellest race or it can be the best race ever. You never know. Every lap counted, every second, to get back to P1.

"The goal was to get maximum Manufacturers' and Drivers' points," he said of the feeling on Saturday. "Then this morning we saw that actually we can do a little bit more, maybe the podium."

Bamber had won with Porsche in 2015 but Sunday was a first for Hartley, the only driver in the two crews yet to taste overall victory at Le Mans. It was the first time since 1966, when Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon won for Ford, that two New Zealanders had shared the winning car. The trio hugged and embraced before the podium celebrations in front of a crowd of 260,000.

'Crazy race'

Their joy could have been that of the No.1 Porsche drivers - Neel Jani of Switzerland, Britain's Nick Tandy and Germany's Andre Lotterer - who were 13 laps clear when the car halted with four hours to go. 

"I'm speechless. It's a crazy race," said Lotterer after being sidelined by an oil pressure issue.

The podium was completed by two second-tier LMP2 entries, with the No.38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca - the team backed by the Hong Kong action movie star - finishing second. Dutch-born Hong Kong racer Ho-Pin Tung shared that car with Britain's Oliver Jarvis and Frenchman Thomas Laurent. 

Vaillante Rebellion's No.13 Oreca driven by Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr, Denmark's David Heinemeier Hansson and Switzerland's Mathias Beche took third.

Early pace-setter and favourite Toyota saw its hopes of becoming only the second Japanese manufacturer to win, after Mazda in 1991, disappear in an agonising half hour after midnight. After securing pole position with a record fastest lap on Thursday, their No.7 and No.9 cars retired in quick succession.

"It is so disappointing",said pole-sitter Kamui Kobayashi. "The car was running very well and we were just taking things steady, building a gap at the front. Then after the safety car, I just had no power."

The former Formula One driver was halted by a clutch problem in the leading No.7 around the 10 hours mark. The team, five times runner-up, missed out in 2016 when its leading car broke down on the final lap only minutes from the chequered flag.

"I tried to come back to the pits but it wasn’t possible. I feel so sad for everyone in the team who has worked so hard for this race and produced such a quick car," said Kobayashi.

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