Le Mans – Fernando Alonso’s first appearance in the Le Mans
24-Hour Race this weekend has given a lift to the mythic race and to the World
Endurance Championship (WEC).
A declining sport is suddenly in the grip of Nando mania.
Alonso is far from the first Formula One driver to cross
over in recent years, but his impact has been immediate.
The Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Spaniard made
his WEC debut in May “showed a 3,51% rise in attendance compared with
2017,” said a WEC spokesperson.
That’s good news for a discipline that has, in the last two
years, lost Audi and Porsche, leaving Toyota, Alonso’s team, alone in the top
Victory at Le Mans would take Alonso a step closer to the
triple crown of racing. He won the Monaco Grand Prix in 2006 and 2007 but
finished 24th in his only Indy 500 last year.
Media interest in Le Mans has been slipping. Between 2013
and 2017, the number of journalists accredited fell from 1 405 to 1 225.
WEC said it accredited 482 media representatives for the
Belgian race, up from 460 last year, adding that was a record for the course
for a non-F1 race and that it anticipates an increase at Le Mans
“particularly from Spanish media.”
In Spa, almost all the questions at the press conference
were in Spanish. At Le Mans on Wednesday morning there was not enough room for
all the journalists who wanted to attend Alonso’s press conference.
“We do not necessarily have more reporters than before,
but many more requests for Alonso than for the other drivers,” said one of
Toyota’s press officers.
Nando is not alone. There will be 23 drivers with F1 experience
on the grid at Le Mans including 2009 champion Jenson Button and Juan-Pablo
Montoya, winner of seven Grand Prix and a string of races in IndyCar and Champ
Car in North America.
“It’s a bit like a restaurant: when its empty, that
does not make you want to go, but when it’s full, there’s always a big
queue,” said Sebastien Buemi, a Swiss teammate of the Spaniard and himself
a former F1 driver. “Alonso came. Then Button, Juan Pablo Montoya… that
attracts a crowd.”