Alonso and Toyota win Le Mans!

There was so much talk pre-race about this result being preordained, that Toyota – as the lone manufacturer still competing with a hybrid in LMP1 – was shooting at an open goal. But the fact remains that Formula 1 superstar Fernando Alonso and his hard-working team-mates Sebastian Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima still had to conquer this toughest of races. Finally, Toyota banished the 30-year curse. It won the Le Mans 24 Hours, and even without Porsche and Audi to beat, it didn’t really matter that the Japanese giant walked it – because this was a satisfying near-perfect performance.

The two TS050 Hybrids were in a race of their own, which was hardly unexpected. But what could only have been hoped for rather than predicted was how smooth the race proved to be for the team. Apart from a scare for the #7 car an hour and a half before the finish, little went wrong.

The most dangerous moment was the start, when Andre Lotterer’s Rebellion R-13 nudged Buemi’s #8 car at Turn 1 before his front bodywork blew off and took out the DragonSpeed BR1 of Ben Hanley at the Dunlop Chicane. Buemi survived the moment unscathed, followed team-mate Mike Conway through the chicane and the pair began building their lead down the Mulsanne. Twenty-four hours later the winning car was 12 laps clear of the best-of-the-rest Rebellion team, which finished a superb third and fourth with its new ORECA-built cars.

One small hitch for Toyota was that through Saturday evening and into the night, it was the #7 car that was leading. This wasn’t to the script, with victory for Alonso in #8 an unspoken priority for Toyota, to maximise exposure for a win that might have lacked flavour without the dash of superstar spice.

But this is the point when Alonso earned his victory, which he needed to achieve to take the second step towards his much-discussed triple crown target. A gap of two minutes had opened between the cars, but in the darkest hours the two-time F1 world champion got his head down and proved conclusively that he was completely home at Le Mans. He played a pivotal part in that gap coming down, to the point that Nakajima could take the lead from Kamui Kobayashi at Mulsanne Corner in the morning. Alonso had shown his class.

Having lost the lead, either by stage management or pure form, the #7 car endured a nervy final quarter of the race. First, Jose Maria Lopez spun at the Dunlop Chicane, then with 90 minutes left Kobayashi suddenly slowed. It turned out he should have pitted, but mistakenly started another lap. The Japanese had to slow to save fuel and ensure he’d complete the extra lap. After a careful tour and a standard stop, he was back up to speed, but now off the lead lap. A stop-go penalty for exceeding the prescribed LMP1 hybrid stint length rubbed salt in Kobayashi’s embarrassment and the car finished two laps down on its sister.

At 3pm, Nakajima crossed the line to end Toyota’s Le Mans angst once and for all. The sense of relief spread through the garage and surely into the giant grandstand opposite the pits. The team would have been humiliated not to have won this race given the lack of opposition, but few would begrudge Toyota after so many years trying to win the greatest race in the world. The victory was fully deserved.

As for Alonso, he now needs to conquer the Indianapolis 500 to complete his triple crown set, beside his two Monaco GPs wins and the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours. Who would bet against him achieving it?

As Alonso celebrated a well-earned victory, his old McLaren team-mate Jenson Button rued his bad luck in the #11 SMP Racing BR1. A long early stop had left the car dead last and without hope of a decent result, but to SMP’s credit the team pushed on regardless. Button, Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin drove superbly through the night and into the morning – only for the engine to let go in the final hour with Button at the wheel. But this was still a promising debut for the car. Let’s hope Button returns for another crack with SMP next year.

LMP2: G-Drive dominates

The G-Drive ORECA of Jean-Eric Vergne, Roman Rusinov and Andrea Pizzitola dominated the secondary prototype division to score a long awaited first Le Mans win for this excellent team. The trio led from the first hour and was never threatened during a remarkably clean run.

The G-Drive car held a comfortable two-lap lead over the #36 Signature-Alpine car, with Tristan Gommendy just holding off a final nail-biting charge from Loic Duval in the #39 Graff entry to complete the podium. Meanwhile there was heartbreak for the pole-winning IDEC ORECA following a strong race. A gearbox problem forced the car into retirement in hour 22.

GTE: Porsche proves ‘Pink Pigs’ do fly

Porsche might have been missing from LMP1 this year, but the German giant still dominated the GTE class at Le Mans. The retro liveries featured on its two Manthey-run cars were well received by all Le Mans fans, and it was the #92 911 featuring the ‘Pink Pig’ colours last seen on a long-tail Porsche 917 in 1971 that led most of the race to secure a resounding victory. Kevin Estre, Michael Christensen and Laurens Vanthoor drove beautifully all the way.

The #91 car, running in the old Group C 956/962 ‘Rothmans’ colours, had a more eventful race which featured the most engaging battle of Le Mans 2018. On Sunday morning, the #68 Ford GT of Sebastien Bourdais caught Fred Makowiecki in the Porsche and looked determined to pass. But ‘Mako’ put up a robust defence – too robust for most onlookers. He weaved down the Mulsanne in an attempt to break Bourdais’ tow, but that did not stop the Indycar star pulling off the move of the race when he passed the Porsche on the outside of the fast Indianapolis right-hand kink, only for the Porsche to draft back past on the run out of Arnage. Twice Makowiecki edged the Ford off the track in his efforts to keep hold of second place, but somehow the stewards waved away any concerns.

The #91 Porsche duly delivered a one-two for the marque, with Fords #68 and #67 finishing in a class three-four.

Porsche also claimed the GTE Am class after a similarly dominant performance by the Dempsey-Proton team. The #77 911 of Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Julien Andlauer was never threatened during a close-as-perfect performance. As the car crossed the line, team patron and Hollywood star Patrick Dempsey roared on the pitwall in delight.

Average race, unforgettable result

In truth, this was hardly a classic Le Mans 24 Hours in terms of the battle for the overall win – because there wasn’t one, other than the (admittedly genuine) tension that existed between the sister Toyotas. Likewise, LMP2 wasn’t as close as we’ve seen in the past, which left GTE Pro to provide most of the entertainment.

But still, this was a Le Mans race no one will forget, firstly because of the significance of the result for Toyota, which becomes the second Japanese manufacturer after Mazda in 1991 to win Le Mans, and also because of Fernando Alonso’s brilliant performance. The Spaniard’s presence lifted this race and his star quality added to the lustre of his team’s victory.

Bravo Toyota, bravo Fernando.