The Pull of La Sarthe

It takes a lot to add to the attractions of a Le Mans 24 Hour race. But this year we have something over and above the event’s habitual charms. Two-time F1 champion, and McLaren driver, Fernando Alonso is taking part in Toyota’s LMP1 squad.

That an incumbent F1 pilot is taking part, moreover has a real chance of winning, feels exceptional. Granted we had Nico Hulkenberg taking part and winning for Porsche in 2015 but he was the first serving F1 driver to win the 24 Hours since 1991. And although many declared interest in Le Mans in Hulkenberg’s victory afterglow the expected rush of F1 stars hasn’t yet happened, though it didn’t help that the following year there was a clash with the ‘European Grand Prix’ in Baku.

Yet taking the full breadth of history F1 drivers participating in Le Mans and winning it is not all that exceptional. Time was that even the most decorated F1 drivers would race in a multitude of other categories as well. Sportscar racing and Le Mans itself were fully included.

When the F1 world championship came into being in 1950 right away Louis Rosier that year combined a Le Mans win with a full F1 campaign in a Talbot.

Four years later Ferrari took its first factory Le Mans victory and its two winning drivers, Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant, also completed F1 seasons that year for the Scuderia. Mike Hawthorn the following year won the tragic Le Mans race for Jaguar while also being a full-time F1 pilot.

The 1960s were the peak of the F1 driver triumphing at the Circuit de la Sarthe, and again it was down in part to Ferrari which won six times in a row at the start of that decade. In 1961 Phil Hill took a Le Mans win and an F1 world championship for Ferrari in the same year; Olivier Gendebien, Jochen Rindt and Lorenzo Bandini also won the 24 hours race for the Italian marque while full-time F1 drivers.

The trend continued as Ford took over the wins in the second half of the decade, indeed it accelerated. Dan Gurney, Pedro Rodriguez, Lucien Bianchi, Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver all took wins before the ‘60s were out, providing a clear peak of F1 driver success at Le Mans.

Graham Hill and Henri Pescarolo (more than once) joined them early the following decade, while by 1976 Ickx had taken a couple more Le Mans victories as a full-time F1 man.

But then it dried up. With Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 commercial rocket ship suddenly there was little scope for drivers to take part in Le Mans too. Well paid superstars had less financial need. More testing and commercial obligations left fewer spaces in diaries. Sponsor and manufacturer conflicts abounded too. Ultra-committed F1 pilots didn’t want distractions. Nervous teams didn’t like the idea of losing their precious driving assets to injuries.

So after Didier Pironi’s triumph in the resplendent yellow Renault Alpine in 1978 only in 1991 did a full-time F1 driver win Le Mans. Indeed two did so at once as Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot formed part of the winning line-up for the rotary-engined Mazda. From then there was next to nothing; Eddie Irvine finishing second in 1994 in a Toyota and Sebastien Bourdais finishing in the same place for Peugeot in 2009 were rare exceptions.

That was until 2015 when Le Mans, and F1, went back to the future. By then testing restrictions freed up F1 drivers’ time, and the prestige of Le Mans remained. The talented but neglected Hulkenberg decided given his rut it was worth having a go in a Porsche (ironically, after Honda didn’t sanction Alonso getting the gig). And he won on his first attempt. How Alonso must hope to replicate the feat.

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