Is 2018 the year F1 stars take over Le Mans?

15th June 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

In the frankly unlikely event that my fag packet calculations are correct, there will be grand total of 21 current or former F1 drivers on the grid at this year’s Le Mans 24 hours. From current superstar Fernando Alonso to 61-year-old Jan Lammers, who’s not competed in a Grand Prix for 26 years, there will be F1 drivers in cars from one end of the grid to the other, and in every single category of racing from LMP1-Hybrid to GTE Am.


But to me, perhaps the most interesting aspect is how many F1 stars are taking to Le Mans for the very first time. In addition to Alonso, Jenson Button, Paul di Resta and Juan-Pablo Montoya will all be making their competition debuts at La Sarthe this year. Which gives immediate rise to two distinct questions. Why are they doing it and what can they expect from the race? And there can surely be no person better qualified to answer than Allan McNish, who not only won Le Mans three times but did so in a career that took place either side of two seasons as test and race driver for the Toyota Formula 1 team.

“I think Le Mans is still growing in stature,” says Allan today. “It’s still a race the top drivers want to win, like Fernando, but also Jacques Villeneuve, because they want the triple crown of racing’s biggest achievements: the F1 world title, and wins at Le Mans and the Indy 500.” Some sense of the scale of this achievement is provided by the fact that, in the history of racing to date, just one person – Graham Hill – has managed it. 

“But there’s more to it than that,” continues Allan. “I think Nico Hulkenberg, not only taking part but winning Le Mans for Porsche in 2015, opened a lot of eyes. And I think Bernie’s were among them, which might just be why the European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan just happened to be timed to coincide with Le Mans in 2016… But I think Jean (Todt) is much more on-side and aware that major races should never be allowed to clash.


“So that’s the first thing: there is now time in the diary to do the race. But there have also been catalysts. Nico was one and I think Fernando is another. While Ron (Dennis) was at McLaren there’s no way his drivers would have been allowed to do other races, but now that he’s gone, and Zak (Brown) is happy for Fernando to do the Indy 500 and sportscar racing, I think it’s opened the eyes of a lot of other drivers too.” 

As for the very particular business of racing at Le Mans, what does Allan think will be biggest surprise of all to the newbie F1 drivers? “Traffic,” he answers in an instant. “By the time they are halfway through the race, they’ll have overtaken more cars than in their entire F1 careers. And now that Le Mans is a 24-hour sprint, speed through traffic is one of the most fundamental skills a Le Mans driver must have. Some drivers can be super quick, but if they can’t overtake they will always be at a disadvantage at Le Mans. And I would say that applied to Jacques Villeneuve.” You may remember that Villeneuve’s Peugeot lost a tense fight with McNish’s Audi for victory at Le Mans in 2008.

“The related issue is speed differentials. When I first won Le Mans in 1998 the cars were doing about the same speed on the straight as for my last in 2013, but the 2013 car was 20 seconds a lap quicker, which is all cornering speed. Guys like Jenson won’t be bothered by having 1000bhp and more downforce than an F1 car, but nothing can prepare you for the speed at which a prototype can gain upon, and reach, a GT car through the quick corners. And then you have an instant decision to make. Pass or let your lap be ruined? And the moment you commit to that pass, you are committed. There is no way out of it.” 

Allan explains you have to judge the trajectory of your car and the one you’re trying to pass, recognise what kind of car it is you’re passing, whether it’s a Pro or an Am car and, if you can, try to work out who’s in it. All in an instant and often several times in one lap, knowing that one mistake can be the end of your race. “And you have to have a thought for the guy or girl in the car you’re trying to pass. They will have their own race to run, be equally competitive against other cars in their car, probably driving something that handles like a bucking bronco and we only ever have to look ahead. They have to be aware of what is going on all around them, all of the time.”

He returns with enthusiasm to another challenge the F1 drivers will face. “They’ll have to be able to handle the teamwork side of it as well. I’m a fundamentally selfish person when it comes to racing, and when I started in sportscars I didn’t want to hand any advantage to anyone. Your team-mate is always your greatest rival and if I found something worth 0.3 seconds a lap, did I want to tell him about it? I did not. But if you have good relations with the guys sharing your car, and if there is decent reciprocity, you learn that you have more to gain as a team than you have to lose as an individual. That is why those relationships are so important. Your rivals aren’t the guys sharing the car with you, but the guys in the other car on the far side of the pit garage.”

In short, says Allan McNish, the best Le Mans drivers “could be top class insurance assessors. Driving successfully at Le Mans is all about risk management, balancing every given risk against its likely reward and deciding that instant whether it is worth taking. Some can come from other areas of the sport including F1 and do it straight away. Others struggle. That’s why I’ll never buy the line that the 20 greatest drivers in the world are all on the F1 grid. Look at Tom Kristensen: had things worked out differently he could have been a hell of an F1 driver.” Of course, he’s right – look at three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer who, given a one-off chance to race in F1 in a Caterham at Spa in 2014, was an entire second quicker in qualifying than his full-time team-mate Marcus Ericsson.

As for the race itself, McNish believes it is Toyota’s to lose. “Then again, it’s a strange race in which anything can happen, and nobody knows that better than Toyota.” We cannot wait for it to commence.

Photography courtesy of LAT Images

  • Le Mans

  • fernando alonso

  • allan mcnish

  • tom_krsitensen_allan_mcnish_emanuele_pirro_goodwood_vieo_play.jpg


    Video: Kristensen, Pirro, McNish – Le Mans legends reunite at FOS

  • le-mans-2018-toyota-ts050-fernando-alonso-kazuki-nakajima-sebastien-buemi-scott-r-lepage-main-goodwood-12032019.jpg


    Where LMP has been, and where it might go next

  • fernando_alonso_le_mans_toyota_goodwood_30012018_list.jpg


    Fernando Alonso: F1 Champion, Daytona racer, magician..?