Winning the Le Mans 24 Hours on his first attempt, two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso has taken a big step towards becoming “best racing driver in the world.”
It is a status that he covets and realising that, in spite of his talent, eclipsing Michael Schumacher’s record of seven F1 world titles is now somewhat of an impossibility. Alonso has targeted motorsport’s unofficial ‘triple crown’ as a way of compensating.
With the Monaco Grand Prix already in the bag, Alonso added a victory at Le Mans last weekend – winning what many consider to be the toughest race on the planet in his rookie year.
Define toughest? The reaction to Alonso’s victory has been mixed on social media. Some have argued that this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours was not the challenge that it should have been courtesy of a lack of LMP1 hybrid entries at the front of the field.
Yes, Toyota was the only manufacturer in the race. The #7 and #8 TS050 HYBRIDs had at least three seconds per lap of an advantage over the privateer non-hybrid LMP1 field.
In a normal race unaffected by reliability gremlins, Alonso and team-mates Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima in the #8 only had to beat their team-mates in the #7 in order to guarantee victory.
While it is unquestionable that in a race where Audi or Porsche was still a presence in LMP1 Alonso’s task would have been far greater, those suggesting that a lack of rival manufacturers entirely negates his achievement are missing the point.
Alonso drove an exceptional race. He entered the weekend as well prepared as an active F1 driver could be. Having competed in LMP2 with United Autosports in January’s Daytona 24 Hours, the concept of driving at night and dealing with traffic had been explored. Similarly, Alonso’s victory with Toyota at the Spa Six Hours in May served to bed him into the team.
You would expect nothing less than perfect preparation from a champion as devoted to the cause as Alonso. However, applying learnings in an intense environment is another thing entirely.
Alonso was a match for team-mates Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi. Both have driven Toyota LMP1 prototypes since 2012. Alonso looked equally as experienced and as comfortable in the machinery.
The most impressive element of his weekend was his overnight stint. The #8 team had found itself 2m10s adrift of the race leading #7 at the halfway stage after Buemi had been handed a 60s stop-go penalty for speeding in a slow zone.
After taking over from Buemi, Alonso set about reducing the deficit. He recovered nearly a minute during his stint before handing over to Nakajima, who was similarly as impressive.
These achievements in daylight would be one thing, but to deliver a pace overnight that was equal to the speed shown in the afternoon was brilliant.
This adaptability is exactly the trait that Alonso is looking to convey with his triple crown efforts. It is the industry’s appreciation of his talent in all types of machinery and scenarios that has earned him the opportunity to sit in a Toyota at Le Mans in the first place.
Yes, he was in by far the best car and in a race in which mechanical unreliability wasn’t a factor, he had a 50/50 chance of victory. But one of the key elements making this Le Mans crown one of Alonso’s greatest achievements was his earning of the opportunity.
Just as in F1, a driver who wins the championship will usually have the best car, but it is their skill and talent which allows them to ascend to the top of the pinnacle. For a driver to cross disciplines is even more difficult, as Alonso’s F1 experience counts for little competitive advantage against the world’s sportscar talent.
Of course, Toyota benefitted from having Alonso in its team. The marketing opportunities and increased exposure are hugely valuable, but part of Alonso’s achievement is that his previous accomplishments have given him that marketability and made him such an attractive option to LMP1’s class leaders.
Toyota moved aside Anthony Davidson to make space for Alonso during the 2018-19 World Endurance Championship ‘superseason’. Davidson has twice finished second at Le Mans with Toyota. He is a proven sportscar driver – a safe pair of hands which would have been enticing to a team that simply had to win the race this year after years of trying.
The fact that Toyota instead opted to pick rookie Alonso is a testament to his work ethic, raw talent and skill behind the wheel of any racing car. He was in a dominant seat, with a relatively easy shot at the race victory because of the fact that his career has been so remarkable.
It usually no accident that a driver finds themselves in a dominant car and their achievements shouldn’t be underestimated because of the strength of the machinery. Alonso earned the opportunity to achieve one of the greatest wins of his career and delivered a spectacular performance.
The third and final element of the triple crown is the Indianapolis 500 – the hardest race to win of the three, where car performance is less of a factor and success and failure can often be a lottery.
Nevertheless, Alonso’s Le Mans win is a huge step to becoming a “complete driver.” He has entered the world of sportscars in emphatic fashion, demonstrating the talent which transported him there and showing why two F1 titles do not do justice to one of the greatest drivers of the generation.