Le Mans 24 Hours preview
Former GP rivals Button, Alonso and Montoya are among the big names contesting the legendary French 24-hour race this weekend
Our guide to this weekend’s thrilling round-the-clock action
“I found it was another world – driving around here in a car I don’t really know” Jenson Button SMP Racing
THE eyes of the motorsport world will be on Le Mans, France, this weekend as Fernando Alonso bids to win the 24-hour race with Toyota.
Sharing the #8 TS050 with his ex-f1 grid mates Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, the double F1 champion will first and foremost have to head off the challenge posed by Jose Maria Lopez, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi in the sister #7 Toyota entry.
Alonso set the fastest time around the Circuit de la Sarthe at the pre-le Mans test day held the week before last, and is full of confidence heading into the race. “It was a very good day for us as a team,” he said afterwards.
“We obviously prepared for this test in the best way possible before the big race in two weeks’ time. The car felt good from the first lap and everyone was happy straight away. Then it was all about getting familiar with the circuit.
“I have been in the simulator and studied onboard laps from previous years, but it’s always different on the real track, which feels perfect for these cars. It was interesting and a lot of fun.”
The rest of the World Endurance Championship’s top-flight LMP1 class is made up of non-hybrid privateer entries that, despite the organisers’ efforts to equalise their performance, have so far not been able to match the pace of the works Toyotas, which romped home to an easy 1-2 result at the WEC season opener in May.
But the Japanese team is taking nothing for granted, having seen victory slip from its grasp several times at Le Mans in the past – most memorably in 2016, when its car heartbreakingly ground to a halt at the start-finish line with only minutes remaining.
Single cars from the Austrian team Bykolles and US outfit Dragonspeed are joined by two-car efforts from the TVRbacked, Swiss-based Rebellion Racing squad (with ex-porsche LMP1 works aces Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer among the drivers), British racing-car constructor Ginetta and Russian-backed SMP Racing.
The latter has secured the services of 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button (making his Le Mans debut like Alonso), as well as another ex-f1 driver, Vitaly Petrov. Speaking after the pre-race test day, Button told the media: “I was reasonably happy, but in the morning I foundnd it another world – I was driving aroundound here in a car that I don’t reallyy know. I found it quite disconcerting. erting.
“But we made some good changes over lunch and I was much happier with the car in the afternoon.rnoon. A lot of the corners here are veryy tight and they come up on you very quickly,uickly, which is very different from what I’m used to.”
The second-tier LMP2P2 class has a total of 20 entries this year, including a two-car effort from the Anglo-american team am United Autosports. Each driver crew is headed by a big F1 name: Juan Pablo lo Montoya in the #32 and Scot Paul di Resta in the #22.
“I was surprised at howow good the track is and how challenging allenging it is,” Montoya said afterer turning his first laps at the test day. “It’s not easy. There are so many bumps and little tricks to learn. It’s fun, I got quicker through the day, I was pretty happy. “The fast corners are a lot of fun here; if you get it wrong, it’s going to hurt! You dodon’t see any F1 circuits like this; you go in in fifth gear and just hope it sticks. At somewhere like Daytondaytona, you can drive at 10 tenths every lap, but here you can’t. It’s invitiinviting but you can get it wrong!” Elselsewhere in LMP2, the Chinese DC Raracing squad is back for more after dramatically finishing on the overaloverall podium last year when many of the LMP1 runners hit trouble, while ex-f1 driver and the current Formula E points leadleader Jean-eric Vergne turns out for G-drive Racing, alongside Andrea
“The car felt good from the first lap” Fernando Alonso Toyota Gazoo Racing
Pizzitola and Roman Rusinov. The former Audi LMP1 driver Loic Duval has found a berth with the TDS Racing squad, while ex-f1 driver Giedo van der Gerde heads an all-dutch line-up at Racing Team Nederland,erland, where veteran Jan Lammersmers is making his 24th Le Mans 24 Hours start, having won the race with Jaguar back in 1988.
Another big nameme in LMP2 is Pastor Maldonado, who’ss embarking on his first season of racingcing this year since his time in F1 ended in 2015. 5. The Venezuelan is part of the crew for Dragonspeed’s LMP2 entry.
“I’m surprised at how challenging it is – it’s not easy” Juan Pablo Montoya United Autosports