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Opinion: Why Alonso’s FIA World Endurance Championship arrival left a bitter aftertaste

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TOYOTA GAZOO RACING / Fernando Alonso (ESP) -Total 6 hours of Spa Francorchamps
Credit: Joao Filipe/FIA World Endurance Championship

Fernando Alonso‘s #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing crew collected victory at the weekend’s FIA World Endurance Championship ‘superseason’ opener at Spa-Francorchamps; the Spaniard’s first victory since the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix. However, the end of Alonso’s debilitating slog through the biggest silverware drought of his career perhaps wasn’t the occasion it should have been.

Instead of a reason to loosen the champagne corks, a reason to herald a new era of Alonso’s career away from the frustrations of recent seasons, the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps immediately became a pretext to a high-stakes debate about performance equalisation. In the wake of the exit of both Audi and Porsche from the WEC’s once healthy LMP1 class, the salvage operation chiefly sought to create regulations whereby non-hybrid privateer entries could step into the breach and provide competition for Toyota’s remaining hybrid cars.

The fact that Rebellion Racing went into the weekend hoping to finish “only one lap down” on the Toyotas was a marker of badly this ambition had been missed; with Rebellion arguing that LMP1 will no longer be “attractive” unless Toyota is pegged-back. Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi lapped 1.8 seconds clear of LMP1 maestro Andre Lotterer at the wheel of his Rebellion R13 in qualifying, and the privateers were even further back during the race.

Even the R13’s dominance through the twisty middle sector and visible advantage through the high-speed corners was a false chink of hope: the Toyotas had brought their customary lower downforce package to Spa in anticipation of Le Mans, and will produce a higher downforce spec for the remainder of the ‘superseason’.

Indeed, despite promises of ‘lap time parity’, Toyota’s private duel at the front was entirely predictable. Speaking in the wake of preseason testing, Porsche refugee and Rebellion recruit Neel Jani told Autosport, “We can’t beat the factories on pace. Our job is to be there or thereabouts so that we can profit if Toyota chokes.” As Jani suggests, there were in reality only two obstacles to victory for Alonso’s #8 crew: the #7 (who did look marginally faster for much of the distance) and unreliability; something that has an infamous history plaguing erstwhile serene Toyotas.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) and Kazuki Nakajima (JPN) TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa. 2nd to 5th May 2018 Spa Francorchamps, Belgium.

Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing

This is not only something that undeniably cheapens Alonso’s Belgian victory, but also threatens to put an asterisk beside everything he achieves in his WEC adventure. Whilst Nico Hulkenberg took Porsche to victory at Le Mans against a bumper field of seven hybrid rivals in 2015 (albeit predominantly on the back of a superb nighttime stint from team-mate Nick Tandy), a man of Alonso’s competitiveness might be irked by the fact that he will face only one credible rival at la Sarthe. Perhaps he doesn’t care.

The Spaniard is certainly overdue some calmer waters having toiled in the lower placings for what must feel like an eternity. Perhaps some domination is precisely the tonic the browbeaten maestro needs. However, if the privateers didn’t cause Alonso to sweat at Spa, his team-mates certainly did. Fernando is man vying for the title of motorsport’s ‘Jack-of-all-trades’. He arrived at the Indy 500 – a race in a different metaphorical universe to his day job – and produced potentially race-winning pace all week.

He arrived the Daytona 24 – Alonso’s first ever sportscar race – and outqualified team-mate and WEC LMP2 champion Bruno Senna by more than a second, before proceeding to lap faster in the race whilst using less fuel. Both of Alonso’s stateside cameos became immediate appendices to his widely recognised legendary status.

It was perhaps a shock, therefore, to see such a versatile driver struggle to match the pace of his Toyota team-mates in the WEC opener. Indeed, Alonso was perhaps the slowest Toyota driver at Spa. His best qualifying effort was more than six tenths shy of a banzai lap from Kamui Kobayashi; a driver who has firmly established himself as Toyota’s undisputed single-lap specialist on the back of his remarkable Le Mans pole lap last year.

Alonso couldn’t keep a lid on the Japanese driver in the race either, feeling obliged to allow the fresh tyre-shod #7 to unlap itself, with Kobayashi promptly disappeared over the horizon. The Spaniard also would not have been able to contain Mike Conway in the dying laps had Toyota not frozen the positions in Alonso’s favour. Another reason to paint the victory with a rather cynical brush. However, a brief look at the data from the race starts to cast Alonso in a more favourable light. The following is a visualization of the 30 fastest laps for each Toyota driver:

Data visualization of the 30 fastest Toyota LMP1 laps from the 2018 6hrs Spa

Credit: Al Kamel Systems

The 30 fastest laps give an idea as to each driver’s peak pace; laps that aren’t infringed by traffic or virulent tyre drop-off. The data suggests that Alonso was the third fastest Toyota driver on average, and the most consistent across the 30 laps. There are of course many spurious factors that distort this picture, such as clear air generated by safety cars or the amount of rubber on the track. Sebastien Buemi, for example, produced a lap seven tenths faster than Alonso’s best, despite racing on a ‘green’ track surface in the first stint. The Swiss falls down on average however due to the denser traffic in the opening stint of the race. It is also impossible to discern how resilient Alonso’s lap times were to heavy traffic and tyre degradation.

Despite this, the Spaniard’s metronomic consistency suggests he his already at ease at the wheel of his TS050. Indeed, such obstinate consistency suggests Alonso has already acclimatized to the more normative challenge of endurance racing. Whilst gone are the days when sportscar enduros were exercises in fuel management, the drivers still have the challenge of maximizing their machinery whilst keeping it out of the barriers and out of the garage.

The WEC might be a sprint, but it is a more calculated sprint than Alonso is used to. The risk-reward calculus is weighted just fractionally towards a more longsighted racing ethos. That said, the driver who can take risks in traffic without crashing will find himself with a big advantage. Alonso was perhaps unsurprisingly daring around the slower cars from the outset.

In the absence of any credible rivals to Toyota, the legacy of Fernando’s latest extracurricular venture will be shaped around how the Spaniard’s performances compare to his team-mates. Despite winning in Spa, Alonso’s LMP1 foray has already failed to generate the same hype that surrounded last year’s Indy 500 jaunt. Some might even have been disappointed that his performances didn’t have the same explosive immediacy that saw him take the lead in the early stages at the Brickyard last year.

However, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. LMP1 has always been a ferociously competitive and professional class, and Alonso’s team-mates are five of the finest professional racing drivers in the world. Alonso must conquer a trio of stellar drivers in the #7 and the ruthless circuit itself if he wants to win Le Mans next month. That certainly sounds like a fitting glory quest. Yes, the challenge is not as steep as it was at Indianapolis last year, but Alonso still has the opportunity to further seal his legacy as the consummate racing driver.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa. 2nd to 5th May 2018 Spa Francorchamps, Belgium.

Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing

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