Alonso on top at Le Mans Test

Toyota has never faced a better chance to end its famous Le Mans curse than this year, and you can only say its campaign for glory at the 24 Hours is right on track following the traditional test day on Sunday, with Formula 1 superstar Fernando Alonso heading both the morning and afternoon sessions at the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.

As the only manufacturer team in the top LMP1 class following Porsche and Audi’s withdrawal, the Japanese factory team is the sole hybrid entry in the field, with its pair of powerful TS050 HYBRIDs expected to dominate for pace. But after 30 years of hurt at Le Mans, the big question is not whether Toyota can beat its privateer opposition – but whether it can overcome its own demons and banish the so-called curse once and for all. The near-misses, including the past two Le Mans, has made this race a psychological barrier that Toyota feels it simply must conquer.

Toyota LMP1 Le Mans Test Day 2018

Double Formula 1 world champion Alonso is not only considered by many as the best all-round racing driver in active competition, but also a genuine all-time great. As McLaren continues its struggles to hand him a competitive F1 car, the Spaniard has admirably realigned his sights on what else he wants to achieve from his career. A third F1 title is the dream, but looks increasingly likely to remain exactly that. Instead, he is now chasing motor racing’s unofficial Triple Crown: the Monaco Grand Prix, which he won twice in 2006 and ’07, the Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans.

A stunning debut at Indy last year could have resulted in the second of the big three being ticked off, only for a Honda engine failure to rob him of his chance in the late stages. The 36-year-old will have to return to the American oval in the future to try again.

But for now, a plum drive at Le Mans with the manufacturer that really should win this year could allow him to claim the endurance jewel in the triple crown at his first attempt. And that performance at the test day on Sunday suggests Alonso is more than ready to step up on his first appearance at the race.

His #8 Toyota was fastest in the morning session, with a time of 3m21.468s, but in the afternoon Alonso went even quicker to lodge a mark of 3m19.066s. Given who we’re talking about, we shouldn’t be too surprised by his benchmark pace. Still, it was an impressive performance for his first time on the daunting circuit.

Pleasingly, the #7 TS050 didn’t end up second to complete a Toyota one-two. Mathias Beche was only 0.7s down on Alonso’s best in the new Rebellion-Gibson R-13, tipped to be the strongest privateer threat to Toyota’s dominance. To be so close at the test day is encouraging and a testament to the great work put in by Rebellion and ORECA, the company that has built its new LMP1 non-hybrid racer. Living with the Toyotas on pace during the race is another matter, but Rebellion’s reputation for reliability means the team could be well placed to pick up the pieces if the TS050s hit trouble. At the test day, the team’s other car was fourth fastest, with ex-Audi race winner Andre Lotterer setting a quick lap late on Sunday afternoon to trail Kamui Kobayashi in the #7 Toyota.

Along with Alonso, another famous name from F1 acclimatised to Le Mans on Sunday with his first laps of the track. Jenson Button, Alonso’s former McLaren team-mate and the 2009 world champion, managed 20 laps in SMP Racing’s new BR1. He was man enough to admit Le Mans took some getting used to and Button is desperate for more time in the car once practice begins on Wednesday June 13. But his best time was in the 3m24s – respectable at this stage – and the pair of BR1s finished fifth and sixth fastest behind the Toyotas and Rebellions.

In the secondary prototype class, LMP2, competition was as tight as it ever is. Nathanael Berthon’s DragonSpeed ORECA-Gibson was fastest with a time of 3m27.228s, ahead of IDEC Sport’s ORECA and the G-Drive entry driven by ex-F1 racer Jean-Eric Vergne. The class is almost impossible to predict and will provide much entertainment over the course of the 24 hours, even if Toyota breaks its long established habit for drama and has a clean race at the front.

LMP2 Le Mans Test Day 2018

GTE was just as closely fought during the test. Porsche might have pulled out of LMP1, but the German giant is putting plenty of effort into the Grand Touring class and clearly is going all out to win a category bursting with manufacturer interest. Patrick Pilet ended up fastest in his CORE Autosport 911, the car you won’t be able to miss during the race. That’s because the American IMSA entry is painted pink, in a tribute livery to the wonderful ‘Pink Pig’ long-tail 917 that graced Le Mans way back in 1971. The Pink Pig remains a cult car in Le Mans history and it’s typical of Porsche that such heritage should not be forgotten in the modern era. It’s even painted another 911 in Rothmans colours, in deference to the 1980s Group C works 956s and 962s. Tobacco sponsorship has long been banned, but the colour inference from a bygone age is a nice touch.

At the test, Porsche shaded the Ford GTs, while BMWs new M8 looked competitive too. With Ferrari, Aston Martin and Corvette all in the mix too, GTE honours will be wide open come June 16/17.

Porsche GTE Pro Le Mans Test Day 2018

Anticipation for what should be another great Le Mans 24 Hours is building a head of steam. For Toyota and Alonso, they will just be hoping it doesn’t boil over all too early.