This weekend, Fernando Alonso of Spain will return to Le Mans, where he was part of Toyota’s winning team last year on his first outing at the 24-hour race.
Alonso, who has won the Formula One drivers’ championship twice, in 2005 and 2006, and Le Mans, could win the 2018-19 World Endurance Championship for drivers if he wins Le Mans again, the final race of the W.E.C. season. His biggest competitor will be Toyota’s other three-man team. Toyota has already won the manufacturers’ title.
But success this weekend will be bittersweet for Alonso, who is chasing the elusive triple crown of motorsport. That has been achieved by only Graham Hill of England, who won the Formula One drivers’ title in 1962 and 1968, the Monaco Grand Prix five times, the Indianapolis 500 in 1966 and Le Mans in 1972. He died in a plane crash in 1975.
There are two versions of the triple crown; Hill won both of them. For one, a driver must win Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One World Championship. The other version drops that title and adds the Monaco Grand Prix.
[ Fernando Alonso has a history of victories. Here are his career highlights. ]
Alonso won Monaco in 2006 and 2007. So to claim either crown and match Hill, Alonso still has to win Indy. He made an attempt this year, but ended up out of the race before it began.
Alonso was racing for the McLaren Indy 500 team, and the comedy of errors began early. The opening test was delayed by the steering wheel not being ready on time. Testing restrictions coupled with losing the first day of practice to an electrical problem and the second day to a crash hampered McLaren’s preparations. The team’s spare car had been painted the wrong shade of orange, so it was in the paint shop when it was needed on track.
Then engine issues were discovered. When Alonso did make it out for a single day’s testing, errors converting inches to centimeters affected the ride height, and the car’s floor scraped the track as he lapped.
“A difficult week, no doubts,” Alonso wrote on social media at the time. “We tried our best, even today with a completely different set up and approach, four laps flat on the throttle but we were not fast enough. It’s never easy to drive around here at 227 m.p.h.-plus, and want more speed.
“We tried our best, and we’ve been brave at times, but there were people doing a better job than us. Success or disappointments only come if you accept big challenges. We accepted.”
This weekend’s race will prove less of a challenge than Indy, with Toyota effectively in a class of its own as the only manufacturer-backed entry in the LMP1, or Le Mans Prototype-1, class. Whatever the result, it will be his final race as a Toyota driver in the World Endurance Championship. It was announced this year that Alonso will leave the series at the end of this season.
“I am sad to say goodbye to Fernando and would like to thank him a lot for his contribution to this fantastic season during which he has written his name in Toyota’s motorsport history,” Hisatake Murata, the general manager of Toyota Motorsport, said when Alonso’s departure was announced. “His passion, desire to win and willingness to chase his dreams is truly impressive.”
In emailed remarks, Alonso said the World Endurance Championship has been a great experience and made him a better driver.
“It is interesting. Twelve months ago I had zero experience of W.E.C., but in one year amazing things happened to me in sports cars,” he said. “I won Spa twice, Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona. So the last 12 months were better than my dreams.
“I improved a lot as a driver, in terms of driving these cars, approaching this kind of racing, about traffic management, how to deal with and approach long-distance races, 24 hours especially. I learned about the preparations, sleep strategy, mentality, team work needed in this kind of race. When you are in a bubble in F1 you don’t see. You need to touch it. It opens your mind.”
While teamwork and preparation are the essence of racing, the nature of endurance racing with its shared driving stints and three-man teams gives an urgency to ensuring a harmonious and proficient team.
Alonso has nothing but praise for his soon-to-be former colleagues.
“This team is just amazing, how prepared they are, how professional everyone is,’’ he said. “Everyone is at the top of their level. When you come into this type of program you understand why they dominate. The pace advantage has been exaggerated. The team is nearly perfect in everything they do: pit stops, strategy reliability, testing. When everything is perfect it is difficult to beat this kind of organization.”
Had the McLaren Indy 500 effort been the same as the Toyota Le Mans team, Alonso might have arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans the second man to win the triple crown. He has not committed to race at Indy again, telling Speedweek magazine, “If I do Indy again, I’ll look at the options and then choose the most competitive one.”
But he said he felt prepared.
“I have never been as quick and prepared as now,” he said. “With the right knowledge and understanding of many things about driving, I feel strong, ready for big challenges.”
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