LE MANS, France (AP) — Tennis great Rafael Nadal played the role of official starter on Saturday to get the 86th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans classic endurance race underway amid light rain.
Former Formula One champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button are among 180 drivers in the crews of three.
Alonso, racing for Toyota, is competing in his first Le Mans as he bids to match British driver Graham Hill’s feat of completing motorsport’s unofficial Triple Crown, including wins at the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500.
Hill, a two-time Formula One champion like Alonso, managed the feat when he won at Le Mans in 1972.
Button, who is racing for SMP, is also making his debut in Le Mans in the highest category, LMP1.
Alonso’s hybrid car started from pole after teammate Kazuki Nakajima qualified fastest. Their crew is completed by Sebastien Buemi. The other Toyota is crewed by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez, and one of the two cars is favored to win.
The Toyotas quickly settled into a fight for the lead as the track was declared wet. Buemi set the early pace and was leading by 19.978 seconds after completing 17 laps of the circuit in the first hour.
Three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer had to bring his Rebellion car back after losing the nose in a collision at the start.
Bob Fernley announced as president of McLaren IndyCar
Bob Fernley will bring his experience as former deputy team principal at Force India F1 to McLaren Racing’s IndyCar effort in 2019.
Fernley will report directly to McLaren Racing’s CEO Zak Brown.
“Heading back to the Brickyard will be a very special experience for me,” Fernley said at IndyCar.com. “I am proud to be leading this McLaren project and team. The 500 is a hell of a challenge and we have incredibly strong competitors to overcome if we’re to be successful. We will need to prepare well for the month of May and that work starts now.”
For now, Fernley’s responsibility is to create an entry that is capable of allowing two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso to win the Indy 500 in just his second start. But speculation has been widespread that the entry will be a jumping off point for a much broader involvement in IndyCar.
In 2017, Alonso qualified on the middle of row two (fifth), led 27 laps and succumbed to mechanical failure. His effort was impressive enough to be name Rookie of the Year for the Indy 500.
“Bob is a fantastic operator and someone I respect greatly,” Brown said. “His experience and leadership will be essential for us on this project. He is particularly talented at putting effective teams together and extracting maximum performance with finite resources. The Indy 500 is no easy race and Bob’s is a key role, so I’m delighted he’s on board.”