Fernando Alonso’s victory with Toyota at the Le Mans 24 Hours is significant for multiple reasons, not least for the manufacturer itself, which has finally banished all talk of a 30-year ‘curse’ at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
But there’s a specific aspect of Alonso’s success, shared with Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima (lest we forget), that might be easy to overlook.
Not only has he followed the example of 2015 Le Mans winner Nico Hulkenberg by turning the clock back to days when current Formula 1 stars also raced outside the Grand Prix ‘bubble’, more significantly he has joined an exclusive club: the Spaniard is just one of five F1 world champions to have also won the most famous endurance race of them all – and the first to do so for a gaping 46 years.
The others, which includes two unrelated drivers with the same surname, are all now long-deceased, making Alonso the only living representative of this select band of heroes.
The blond haired, bow tie-wearing Englishman won Le Mans three years before he became Britain’s first F1 World Champion, with Ferrari in 1958. In ’55 Hawthorn led the charge for Jaguar, sharing a D-type with Ivor Bueb as the factory team took on the might of Mercedes, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and the glorious 300 SLR.
Early in the race, Hawthorn enjoyed a spirited and extended duel with Fangio, but early on Saturday evening, as he headed for a pitstop, the D-type inadvertently triggered an accident that will forever be remembered as the most tragic in motor sport history. More than 80 spectators died when Pierre Levegh’s 300 SLR flew into the crowd on the pit straight.
Mercedes later withdrew from the race and at the season’s end from all motor racing activity. Jaguar, however, would press on. Hawthorn would face press hostility for celebrating the victory with champagne and in the context of that darkest of races, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his Le Mans win is sometimes quietly forgotten.
The humble Californian and former mechanic was considered a good Grand Prix driver, but he really shone in sportscars. Hill won Le Mans three times for Ferrari in five years between 1958 and ’62, each time sharing with Belgian Olivier Gendebien, who also won another with journalist racer Paul Frere in ’60.
Among our five, Hill has a unique distinction that will surely never be matched, even by Alonso. In ’61, Phil won his F1 world title, in the striking 156 ‘Sharknose’, and Le Mans in the space of just four months. For a man considered by some as a forgotten world champion, that’s a special achievement.
In 1965 the up-and-coming young Austrian wasn’t too interested in Le Mans, especially as he was entered in an outgunned Ferrari 275LM for the customer North American Racing Team. But as the ferocity of the Ford vs Ferrari battle took its toll on both sides, Rindt and bespectacled American team-mate Masten Gregory found themselves nursing a five-lap lead to a surprise victory. Little did anyone know that it would also mark Ferrari’s last overall Le Mans win.
Rindt would go on to establish himself as a true F1 master, but is forever labelled as F1’s only posthumous world champion. His death in the Gold Leaf Lotus 72 at Monza in 1970 bestowed Rindt with a unique – and devastatingly awful – status in the history of motor racing.
Unfairly, the only man to win motor racing’s unofficial triple crown – the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 – is too often written off as a grafter rather than a natural talent. But study his career through the 1960s and early ’70s in detail and there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: Graham Hill deserves to be considered as one of the great all-rounders.
‘Mr Monaco’ won five times in the Principality between 1963 and ’69, with his pair of F1 titles coming in ’62 for BRM and ’68 for Lotus. And while his Indy 500 win in ’66 owed something to fortune, it remains a monumental achievement given that he was a ‘Brickyard’ rookie.
By ’72, Hill was way past his prime in F1 and French ace Henri Pescarolo had major doubts when he was told who he would be teamed with at Le Mans in the pace-setting Matra MS670. But ‘Pesca’ readily admits today that those doubts were rapidly banished during a race in which Hill rolled back the years, especially in heavy rain. The triple crown was little more than a happy coincidence for Hill, after a victory he earned through skill and dexterity. Just like his many others, in fact.
Now the man considered by many as the best still-active racing driver of the modern era has joined this exclusive club. Like Graham Hill, he has added victory at Le Mans after his F1 titles – but instead of four years, it’s been an incredible dozen since Alonso was last champion. Having already broken Emerson Fittipaldi’s record as the youngest Grand Prix winner in 2003, Fernando’s early-career flourish was topped by back-to-back F1 world titles in 2005-06, and a pair of Monaco triumphs in ’06 and ’07.
The reasons why he hasn’t added more F1 titles since are both tortuous and well documented. But at 37, and with a third crown looking increasingly unlikely thanks to McLaren’s continuing decline, his new focus on an all-around legacy and the triple crown is a welcome throwback to an attitude his fellow F1 champions and Le Mans winners would recognise (and in all honesty, wouldn’t think twice about).
Two down, one to go. Following his impressive Indy rookie campaign last year, who would bet against Alonso achieving his goal at the 500 any year soon?