You have to feel sorry for Toyota. They finally win Le Mans after 19 years of excruciating effort and social media comment is dominated by Fernando Alonso.
There’s very little said about Toyota’s ball-breaking preparation this time or the heart-breaking failures in previous years. More about the actual worth of Alonso’s result in a race Toyota could only lose and the choice he now has to make regarding a future that seems inextricably linked to matching Graham Hill’s singular achievement winning the so-called Triple Crown.
Point of order: 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 words, referred to the F1 element being the World Championship rather than Monaco. No matter: Alonso – as did Hill – qualifies on both counts. But not Juan Pablo Montoya; a discussion for the day JPM wins at Le Mans to make what would be a popular Triple Crown claim.
Back to last weekend, though. There’s endless column inches about how the result has been devalued by meagre opposition having 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 slashed the best part of two minutes off 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 at your local club event never mind cope with Mulsanne, flat out, at night.
The winning Toyota, piloted by Kazuki Nakajima, Sébastien Buemi and Alonso, finished 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 won by ten laps – and got there thanks to one Matra blowing up in front of the pits at the end of the first 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 1000km races at the old Spa and the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Meanwhile, Matra tested relentlessly at Paul Ricard, eventually making a V12 that could last for 24 hours. And then, as if to further increase the possibly of the first 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 as the Lola driven by the former head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association flew into the trees at Indianapolis following a collision with 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? Given McLaren’s present hopeless state and Alonso receiving another reminder (following the WEC win 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 WEC that blends nicely with a year in Indycar.
That said – and without meaning to contradict the above defence of his victory on Sunday – winning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the month of May is likely to be more challenging and less predictable than his charge through the Sarthe on a busy evening in June.
But none of that should diminish Toyota’s long-awaited moment in the sun.