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Alonso sprinkles Spanish star dust over fading Le Mans

© AFP | Fernando Alonso's appearance at Le Mans, where he drove in qualifying on Wednesday, has been a boost for the race.

LE MANS (FRANCE) (AFP) - 

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 category (LMP1).

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."

© 2018 AFP