LONDON (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso can win this month’s Le Mans 24 Hours sportscar race on his debut with Toyota but the double Formula One world champion could still be in the wrong car, according to five-times winner Derek Bell.
The 76-year-old, one of the greats of endurance racing and a double sportscar world champion, told Reuters that Le Mans was a race that chose its winners.
“He should win, and Toyota should win, but we’ve had that many times before,” Bell said at a Motorsport Hall of Fame event.
“I drove for Renault when we led by 16 laps at eight o’clock in the morning and by quarter to nine we were out.
“That’s racing and it’s tough as heck. But they (Toyota) have put everything into it and I just pray and hope they haven’t got something silly that goes wrong.”
Alonso is the big name at the Sarthe circuit this year, even if Le Mans is always a team effort, and is combining a full Formula One season for McLaren with the World Endurance Championship (WEC) for Toyota.
He wants to become only the second man, after the late Briton Graham Hill, to complete the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ by winning Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One championship/Monaco Grand Prix.
The 36-year-old led at Indianapolis last year before retiring with an engine failure.
Alonso won on his WEC debut, the Six Hours of Spa in Belgium in a car shared with Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima and Switzerland’s Sebastien Buemi, and was fastest in last Sunday’s official Le Mans testing.
Bell was not at all surprised.
“He should be (fastest), shouldn’t he?. He’s good. There’s no doubt about it. The good ones always go quick,” he said. “I didn’t expect anything different.
“Without a doubt, the biggest publicity is Alonso being at Le Mans. So if they can get him in the car and give him the works just to get the quickest lap, they will do it.”
Toyota are the only major manufacturer entered in the endurance classic, following the departure of champions Porsche, and are bidding to become only the second Japanese entry to win after Mazda in 1991.
The team secured pole position with a record fastest lap last year but had their hopes dashed in an agonising half hour after midnight when their top two cars retired.
Bell jokingly suggested Toyota might have to “retire rapidly back to Japan and never appear again” if they failed again but racing was a cruel sport.
“I wish them all the very best. But they’ve got to win, and they probably will. But they might not. It’s such a lottery,” said the man who took four of his Le Mans wins with Porsche.
A newly-published book ‘All My Porsche Races” chronicles that history and he will be back at Le Mans again this year for the June 16-17 race.
“Don’t forget, it’s 3,000 plus miles, there’s all the traffic out there, there’s the weather conditions, there’s driver ability and traffic in the dark and rain which he (Alonso) hasn’t totally experienced to any great degree,” said Bell.
“And then you get out there and Lady Luck comes in and knocks you about.
“It’s in the lap of the gods. It’s Toyota’s time to win but I don’t envy them that. They’ll be sitting on their nerves the whole time.”
If all goes well, and Alonso stands on the top of the podium with his team mates, Bell said the Spaniard would be a deserving winner.
“The guy is one of the greatest drivers we’ve seen in many, many years,” said the Briton.
“The publicity he’s bringing for Le Mans is magnificent. The reason the people will go this year is to see Le Mans, because it’s Le Mans, but a hell of a lot will go just to see how well Alonso goes.”
(The online version of the story is refiled to fix typo in first paragraph)
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge