Toyota hold key to Le Mans without Alonso, and 250,000 fans

Le Mans (France) (AFP) –


Fernando Alonso and 250,000 diehard fans haven't made it to this weekend's Le Mans 24 Hour race which Toyota are hot favourites to win for a third consecutive year.

The 2020 edition of the motorsport classic will be played out in the shadow of Covid-19, with the famous La Sarthe circuit's cavernous grandstands eerily empty.

Organisers ACO had initially hoped to allow in a portion of the quarter of a million petrolheads making the annual sleep-deprived pilgrimage.

But maintaining social distancing protocol around the entire 13 kilometre track was proving too problematic, resulting in the total crowd ban for the event uprooted by the pandemic from its usual June slot for the first time since 1968.

Two-time Formula One world champion Alonso helped Toyota win in 2018 and 2019, but he forgoes a chance to land the treble to focus instead on his F1 return next year with Renault, competing as Alpine in 2021.

Alonso's seat in the team comprising Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima has been taken by Brendon Hartley.

The New Zealander won the 2017 Le Mans for Porsche.

Sharing the wheel of Toyota's second car are Michael Conway, Kamui Koyabashi and Jose Maria Lopez.

They lead the endurance championship standings by 12 points from the other Toyota with Le Mans the penultimate event of the season.

They came agonisingly close to winning last year, a puncture an hour from the finish hard to accept, even if their teammates were the main beneficiaries.

Asked if he saw this as a revenge mission for his number 8 Toyota Lopez told the event's official website: "Yes. I don't know if it's a question of revenge, of course everyone wants to win this race and we came so close, especially last year.

"But there are people who tried 20 times and never managed to win it. That gives you an idea of the challenge that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

"No matter who your adversaries or teammates are, it's always difficult and it makes you respect the race. Naturally this year I hope we succeed because we deserve to win."

The Japanese manufacturer with its two entries makes up two fifths of the grid for the main LMP1 category.

Hoping for an upset in their last Le Mans are Swiss team Rebellions' two cars with Ayrton Senna's nephew Bruno one of their drivers with the Bykolles team,'s Enso the fifth entry. LNT's Ginetta was set to race but has pulled out.

Saturday's start time has been moved forward from 1600 local time (1400GMT) to 1430, to account for the shorter days in September.

There are four lower category Le Mans races with 59 cars set to compete, including two all women teams.

The first, in LMP2, features Colombian Tatiana Calderon, German Sophia Florsch and Beitske Visser of the Netherlands.

The other splitting the driving of a Ferrari 488 in the LM GTE AM division consists of Italian Manuela Gostner, Dane Michelle Gatting and Switzerland's Rahel Frey.

The race is being staged under strict coronavirus health protocol, and also possibly under forecast stormy weather.