LE MANS, France (Reuters) – Double Formula One champion Fernando Alonso struck lucky and won the Le Mans 24 Hours sportscar race for the second year in a row on Sunday with Toyota team mates Kazuki Nakajima and Switzerland’s Sebastien Buemi.
FILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 – Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – November 23, 2018 McLaren’s Fernando Alonso during practice REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
The number eight car crew, who had been running second until last-hour drama, were also crowned world endurance champions with Nakajima driving the final stint and becoming the first Japanese to win a global FIA-sanctioned series.
Toyota’s number seven TS050 hybrid, driven by Britain’s Mike Conway, Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi and Argentina’s Jose Maria Lopez, led most of the way before a late puncture dropped them to second in a one-two finish for the Japanese manufacturer.
The winning margin, after 385 laps of the Sarthe circuit in the 87th edition of a race watched by a crowd of 252,000, came down to 16.972 seconds.
Alonso, 37, recognized luck had played a big part in completing an unprecedented Le Mans double in a single super-season.
“The main goal this weekend was to win the championship,” the Spaniard, who won his Formula One titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006, told Eurosport television.
“I think car seven was quicker than us for 24 hours, they really deserved the victory but today the luck decided that we have to take the trophy.
“Luck sometimes plays an important part in motorsport and today we feel extremely lucky and maybe we don’t deserve it but we take it,” added the former Ferrari and McLaren driver who left Formula One last year.
“The world championship feels right at this moment.”
The number eight crew had needed only a top-seven finish to be sure of the title, with the number seven car their sole rivals.
Alonso’s former McLaren Formula One team mate Stoffel Vandoorne, a Le Mans rookie, joined him on the podium in the third-placed number 11 SMP Racing BR Engineering car shared with Russians Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin.
That non-hybrid car finished seven laps off the pace on a sunny afternoon.
The two Toyota TS050 hybrids had started first and second, with the number seven car immediately setting the pace but with the gap repeatedly narrowed by safety car periods.
Toyota remained in control throughout, however, with only the risk of mechanical failure or driver error to worry about in a top LMP1 category they have dominated as the sole major manufacturer.
Lopez had two minutes’ advantage when he pitted with a suspected puncture, only to find after leaving that the team had changed the wrong tire.
The Argentine limped back to the pits while Nakajima took the lead.
The championship was the second of Buemi’s world endurance career, after a first in 2014, and an addition to the all-electric Formula E crown the Swiss won in 2015-16.
The racing was punctuated by crashes, with Venezuelan former F1 driver Pastor Maldonado hitting the barriers at Tertre Rouge in the number 31 Dragonspeed LMP2 after daybreak and bringing out the safety car.
Before that, the number 17 SMP that had been in third place spun out in the early hours with Russian Egor Orudzhev at the wheel and the car proving too damaged to continue.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Sudipto Ganguly