It is certainly not difficult to cheapen Fernando Alonso and Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Le Mans glory. Four seconds clear in qualifying and eleven laps clear come the flag (including two one-minute stop-go penalties for the #8), the ACO’s ham-fisted attempt at equalising the performance between the privateers and the hybrid TS050s did little to dent the Japanese manufacturer’s predictably dominant position.
Short of the #7 missing the entry of the pits and completing an additional lap on fumes, there wasn’t even Toyota’s usual collection of mechanical maladies and miscellaneous melodrama to sharpen the competition.
But there was at least a two-car fight for the lead, right? However, it didn’t take long for a healthy dose of scepticism to emerge among the pundits and fans. Unable to pretend that the privateers had provided any kind of competition, surely Toyota’s only way to prevent a muted response to an unequivocally overdue victory was to ensure that a global sporting superstar enjoyed a share of the glory.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new for motorsport, especially so in the age of the braying twitterati, and in the vast majority of cases, they are mindless nonsense. However, the suggestion that Toyota gifted Fernando Alonso a Le Mans win comes with an unusually large catalogue of plausibility.
The publicity motives are irrefutable. Whilst headlines like ‘Alonso wins Le Mans’ could not fail to extract an almost amusingly melodramatic level of angst from sportscar aficionados (unnecessarily so – Alonso’s off-track celebrity clout was more than vindicated by on-track excellence), the Spaniard’s sporting profile was an easy way for Toyota to piggyback news of its victory to a far wider audience.
Indeed, the events of the all-important internecine night-time duel certainly appear to bear this theory out. Alonso was by no means the fastest Toyota at the 6 Hours of Spa in May and would have lost the victory to the chasing #7 of Mike Conway but for Toyota’s policy of freezing the positions after the final pitstop. And yet, having been hamstrung by a one-minute stop-go penalty, Alonso’s marathon quadruple stint in the dead of night scythed into Jose Maria Lopez’s lead by almost two minutes.
Certainly, the triple World Touring Car champion hasn’t had an easy transition into sportscars. Having sustained a vertebrae injury following a heavy crash at Copse corner during his very first LMP1 stint and having been mired in a number of traffic-related incidents throughout last season, Lopez has struggled to find a consistent race rhythm with his TS050. However, gratuitously the Argentinean had no problems in keeping pace with Alonso when he returned to the cockpit mid-morning having come in for such a bruising throughout the night.
It would certainly not be unprecedented for a team in such a dominant position to orchestrate the pace of its cars, and given the absence of external competition, it was important to keep both cars in close proximity to at least maintain the appearance of a fight. It is also not as if LMP1 teams don’t have a history of heavily favouring one car, with Porsche invoking team orders last year despite an almost unassailable championship position and having already delivered the devastating news of its exit from the sport.
And yet, whilst Toyota certainly could be forgiven for reining in the #7 and hoping to soften the cynicism of an unopposed Le Mans win with some celebrity appeal, that is a staggering undersell of the man they were supposedly hoping to navigate to victory. There is no denying that Fernando Alonso drove a storming race en-route to Le Mans glory.
On the back of an intensive programme of preparation; having watched more than 16 hours of onboard footage; the Spaniard arrived at la Sarthe as a much more formidable sportscar driver than he was in Spa. The fact that he was one of only a handful of drivers eager to sample the intermediate rubber during a brief shower during the second qualifying session was indicative of Alonso’s ominously studious intent.
Publicity motives aside, the results of his meticulous preparation were clear to see come the night. Eyebrows might have been raised by Fernando’s enormous pace advantage over the #7 but that doesn’t explain why Alonso was on average almost two seconds quicker than either of his team-mates during their night-time stints. Whilst the pace equalised out come the morning, neither Sebastien Buemi nor Kazuki Nakajima could consistently lap under the 3m23s mark during the night, as Alonso metronomically inflicted a string of 3m21s laps.
And therein lies an invisible but decisive ingredient in the elasticated inter-team battle. The ambient conditions dramatically influence the aerodynamic efficiency and tyre behaviour of the cars. At the peak of Alonso’s midnight heroics, the track temperature and the air temperature were both at a rather chilly 15° C. The cooler track temperature reduces the mechanical grip from the tyres whilst the cool, dense air increases the aero loading, which can result in a lethargic car at low speeds and an unpredictable car at high speeds.
Given that little more than 8 hours of the race are run in total darkness, the night-time balance has always been something of a compromise at Le Mans. Despite his relative inexperience at racing in the dark, Alonso clearly mastered the night-time balance, doubtless using his instinctive aggression to energise the car in the low speed and contain the rear through the demanding Porsche curves. So in tune was Alonso with the rhythm of the night, he offered to extend his quadruple stint to a quintuple!
Also, it was evidently not any PR machinations from that held the #7 back during the night, but instead the same night-time car balance roulette that so markedly came towards Alonso’s driving style. As Conway explained, “When the temperatures dropped at night, we lacked a lot of front end with the car. All through the night we dropped pace compared with the other car. That was the kind of turning point, even though the hotter conditions when the sun came up brought us back into the window.”
Conway’s account explains both why the #7 suffered overnight and why it subsequently recovered come the morning. Indeed, withstanding the #7’s understeer and Alonso’s night-time zeal, the scope for further pit wall orchestration appears fairly non-existent.
Kamui Kobayashi arguably did the best job of masking the #7’s encroaching understeer as he maintained the gap to a freshly penalised Buemi in the dying hours of Saturday night. However, the Japanese couldn’t restrain his new tyre-shod compatriot come the dawn as Nakajima passed Kobayashi into Mulsanne, capping off Alonso’s Herculean night-time assault.
But it wasn’t only under the cover of darkness where Fernando shone. The Spaniard audaciously carved through the traffic on the second safety car restart on Saturday afternoon to bear down on a decidedly more circumspect Lopez, with the team opting to release the faster #8 thereafter. Indeed, what ought to have been the two biggest hurdles for an F1 driver competing at Le Mans – the traffic and the night – quickly became two of Alonso’s biggest strengths. Le Mans was an irrefutable feat of a true professional, a marker of how Alonso’s eye for detail and eagerness to learn has allowed him to become arguably F1’s most cerebral and versatile performer.
Certainly, it would have been nice to see how Alonso would have fared against the bumper crop of seven hybrid competitors that Nico Hulkenberg faced in 2015 (a race where night-time heroics – this time from Nick Tandy – again proved decisive), but the Spaniard still didn’t waste an opportunity to prove his class. The fact that Toyota could coincide a painfully overdue Le Mans win with Alonso’s extracurricular crusade for the ‘Triple Crown‘ appears nothing more than a happy coincidence.
Even in the depths of a championship fight, Toyota never fully shared its German rivals’ penchant for team orders. Alonso-related temptations aside, having resolved to remain as the sole LMP1 manufacturer, Toyota was surely cognizant of the importance of preserving the integrity of the inter-team competition.
And there is certainly no evidence of pit wall interference. Instead, Alonso had to bring his A-game to overturn such an imposing deficit following Buemi’s slow-zone infraction. However, ironically this latest cause for celebration for the Spaniard’s legions of fans might just tip the balance away from Alonso persevering with his day job. Having already scored two more victories in the TS050 than a barren half-decade in F1, the temptation of the brickyard must surely be irresistible for 2019.