Fernando Alonso celebrated a victorious debut in the 86th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours race as Toyota triumphed.
The two-time Formula One world champion is pursuing motor racing’s Triple Crown – winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and Indianapolis 500 – and ticked off the second of the three prizes in France.
The 36-year old Spaniard and team-mates Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi secured a two-lap victory. They started from pole position on Saturday afternoon after Japanese former Williams driver Nakajima posted the fastest time in qualifying for their number eight car.
Toyota, who competed with a hybrid car in the top LMP1 class, proved too strong for their rivals running non-hybrids and completed a one-two when their number seven car – shared by Briton Mike Conway, Japanese Kamui Kobayashi and Argentinian Jose Maria Lopez – finished second.
McLaren F1 driver Alonso won the Monaco Grand Prix in 2006 and 2007 and requires just the Indy 500 to emulate Britain’s double F1 champion Graham Hill, who is the only driver to have completed the Triple Crown set.
Meanwhile, Jenson Button retired from the Le Mans race after coming to a halt with just 50 minutes to go for the Russian-backed SMP team.
Button was also in his debut Le Mans race and lined up from seventh on the grid.
The 2009 F1 champion, who raced alongside Alonso at McLaren, struggled with an engine problem and spent two hours in the pits racing in the non-hybrid LMP1 class.
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Fernando Alonso strung together a series of fast laps through the night to set up his Toyota to retake the lead on his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut just after dawn on Sunday.
The Spaniard put the Toyota No. 8 in position for Japanese co-driver Kazuki Nakajima to overtake stablemates Toyota No. 7, driven by Kamui Kobayashi, at 06.20 local time (08.20 UAE time).
When Alonso took his second turn at the wheel at 1.30 (3.30 UAE time), the car was 2min 15sec behind No.7 after the car’s third driver, Swiss Sebastien Buemi, had picked up a one-minute “stop and go” penalty for speeding in a temporary slow zone.
When Alonso handed over to Nakajima two and a half hours later, the two-time Formula One world champion had closed the gap to 45 seconds to claim the lead during his first stint late on Saturday afternoon.
Alonso, who is bidding to complete the second part of motor racing’s Triple Crown, climbed out of his car smiling and scarcely showing signs of fatigue.
“I felt good at night. I was in the zone and I pushed to catch up,” said the 36-year-old, who has already won the F1 Monaco Grand Prix and also still needs the Indy 500 for the Triple Crown.
“Some of the work is done, but it’s still a long race.”
The leader in LMP2, after 19 hours, was the G-Drive Racing car of Frenchmen Jean-Eric Vergne and Andrea Pizzitola and Russian Roman Rusinov, lying fifth overall, 14 laps behind Alonso’s Toyota.
Alonso, the two-time Formula One world champion, will make his debut at this weekend’s prestigious event in his pursuit of motor racing’s Triple Crown; winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans.
Should he win on Sunday, Alonso will require just the Indy 500 to emulate Britain’s double F1 champion Graham Hill – the only other driver to have completed the set.
The 36-year old Spaniard will start from pole position after his Japanese team-mate, and former Williams driver, Kazuki Nakajima posted the fastest time in qualifying. The duo will be joined by former Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi.
Button, the 2009 F1 champion who raced alongside Alonso at McLaren, is also set to make his Le Mans debut in the 24-hour race which gets under way on Saturday afternoon.
“For any of us to challenge Toyota is very difficult,” Button, 38, told Press Association Sport. “It is theirs to lose.
“But it is Le Mans and you never know. It isn’t a sprint race so there is every possibility we could challenge them.
“We are ready, and ready to fight, and it is going to be an exciting race.”
Button, who brought the curtain down on his grand prix career in 2016, will race for the Russian-backed SMP team.
They will line up in seventh on the grid. Button’s car, unlike Alonso’s Toyota, is not a hybrid, and he will face series of handicaps.
Button, who announced his engagement to American model Brittny Ward earlier this week, added: “The atmosphere should be awesome. Fans stay up all night, and not many sleep.
“My friends and family are really excited about coming along and I am equally excited.
“The problem is that in between stints on the track I am supposed to sleep, but being such a motor racing nut I am going to struggle because I will be too interested in watching the racing.”
Nick Tandy was the last Briton to win the Le Mans race, when he teamed up with German F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg back in 2015.