ALONSO AT LAST

At Le Mans 2018, the great Spa­niard fi­nally won an­other ma­jor race. What’s next?

Car (South Africa) - - COLUMN - BY: Mau­rice Hamil­ton Mau­riceHamil­ton MAU­RICE HAMIL­TON is an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed full-time F1 re­porter and au­thor. A CAR con­trib­u­tor since 1987, he also writes for The Guardian in Eng­land and is the F1 com­men­ta­tor for BBC Ra­dio’s 5 Live F1.

The fi­nal ele­ment of the Triple Crown, if it comes, will be hard won

YOU have to feel for Toy­ota. Win­ning the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an achieve­ment, both re­gard­less and be­cause of the cir­cum­stances. This, how­ever, seemed for­got­ten with all the head­lines fo­cused on Fer­nando Alonso, as if he had been the sole driver in the win­ning Toy­ota TS050 Hy­brid.

Very lit­tle was said about the Ja­panese team’s ex­ten­sive prepa­ra­tion this time or the heart-break­ing fail­ures in pre­vi­ous years. There was more about the ac­tual worth of Alonso’s re­sult in a race Toy­ota could only lose.

There were end­less col­umn inches about how the re­sult had been de­val­ued by the rules re­quir­ing the mea­gre non-hy­brid op­po­si­tion to run longer be­tween pit stops; or how Toy­ota al­legedly man­u­fac­tured the head­line win for the Spa­niard; or … well, name just about any­thing the Alonso de­trac­tors could think of when post­ing in some­times vir­u­lent fash­ion.

The fact is, Alonso’s late night/early morn­ing stint was clas­sic Le Mans as he got into a rhythm in traf­fic and added the best part of two min­utes to the lead. Don’t for­get, we’re talk­ing not only about lap­ping much slower cars, but also one or two un­pre­dictable driv­ers who would strug­gle to be run­ner-up in a club event, never mind cope with Mul­sanne, at out, at night.

The win­ning Toy­ota of Kazuki Naka­jima (who put the car on pole), Se­bastien Buemi and Alonso nished two laps in front of its sis­ter car and al­most 120 miles ahead of the Re­bel­lion in third; more am­mu­ni­tion for crit­ics com­par­ing Alonso to Hill. But here’s the thing: the Ma­tra driven by Hill and Henri Pescarolo in 1972 won by 10 laps and got there thanks to one Ma­tra blow­ing up in front of the pits at the end of the rst lap and the other, also while lead­ing, be­ing hit up the rear by a Chevro­let Corvette.

Le Mans was the only race un­der­taken by Ma­tra-simca that year while the rest – Fer­rari, Alfa Romeo, Lola and Porsche – took part in an 11-round cham­pi­onship that in­cluded the Targa Flo­rio, plus 1 000 km races at the old Spa and the Nür­bur­gring Nord­schleife. Mean­while, Ma­tra tested re­lent­lessly at the Paul Ri­card track, even­tu­ally mak­ing a V12 that could last for 24 hours. And, then, as if to fur­ther in­crease the pos­si­bly of the rst French win at Le Mans in 22 years, Fer­rari with­drew all four cars a week be­fore thanks to hav­ing al­ready steam­rollered the ti­tle.

None of this, how­ever, in any way den­i­grates Hill’s achieve­ment, par­tic­u­larly on a week­end when his friend, Jo Bon­nier, was fa­tally in­jured when his Lola ew into the trees at In­di­anapo­lis Cor­ner fol­low­ing a col­li­sion while lap­ping a Fer­rari Day­tona.

The his­tory of the 24 Hours is pep­pered with tragedy, hard luck, for­ti­tude and the art of be­ing there at the end. Hill was part of a win­ning team at Le Mans. As was Alonso. Job done. Move on.

Where to? Well, it’s a fu­ture that seems in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to match­ing Gra­ham Hill’s sin­gu­lar achieve­ment of win­ning the so-called Triple Crown. The pop­u­lar view is that the Triple Crown con­sists of vic­to­ries at Le Mans, the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, even though Hill, in his own words, re­ferred to the F1 ele­ment as be­ing the world cham­pi­onship rather than Monaco. No mat­ter. Alonso – as did Hill – qual­i­fies on both counts, the Spa­niard hav­ing won at Monaco in 2006 and 2007, and claim­ing two world ti­tles.

Given the Mclaren F1 team’s present hope­less state and Alonso re­ceiv­ing an­other re­minder (fol­low­ing a win for Toy­ota at Spa) of the heady air at the top of a podium, there seems lit­tle rea­son why he should stay in F1 for 2019 and strong mo­ti­va­tion to con­sider a sea­son of en­durance rac­ing that blends nicely with a year in IndyCar and al­lows a suit­able build-up to the Indy 500.

That said, with­out mean­ing to con­tra­dict the above de­fence of Alonso’s vic­tory at Le Mans, and as ed­i­tor Steve Smith de­scribed in last month’s is­sue, win­ning at the In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way at the end of May is likely to be more chal­leng­ing and less pre­dictable than any charge through the Sarthe on a busy evening in June. The nal ele­ment of the Triple Crown, if it comes, will be hard won. But none of that should di­min­ish Toy­ota’s long-awaited mo­ment in the sun.

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