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Alonso sprinkles Spanish star dust over fading Le Mans

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).

Alonso, who has claimed pole position for the race, 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.

Alonso 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."

With Toyota the only manufacturer in the top category in this weekend's race, it was hardly a surprise that Alonso and teammates Buemi and Japan's Kazuki Nakajima claimed pole position on Thursday night.

Nakajima clocked a top lap of 3min 15.377sec, shrugging off rain which swept the course.

Leading times:

1. Sebastien Buemi - Kazuki Nakajima - Fernando Alonso (SUI-JPN-ESP/Toyota TS050 - Hybrid) 3:15.377

2. Mike Conway - Kamui Kobayashi - José Maria Lopez (GBR-JPN-ARG/Toyota TS050 - Hybrid) 3:17.377

3. Thomas Laurent - Mathias Beche - Gustavo Menezes (FRA-SUI-USA/Rebellion R13 - Gibson) 3:18.252

4. André Lotterer - Neel Jani - Bruno Senna (GER-SUI-BRA/Rebellion R13 - Gibson) 3:19.449

5. Stephane Sarrazin - Egor Orudzhev - Matevos Isaakyan (FRA-RUS-RUS/SMP Racing - BR Engineering BR1 - AER) 3:19.483

by Raphaëlle PELTIER, avec Benoît NOEL à Spa-Francorchamps

© 2018 AFP