As we near the start of the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans at 3pm on Saturday, the focus of the pre-race coverage has, unsurprisingly, centred on one driver: Fernando Alonso.

The two-time Formula 1 world champion will be aiming to take the next step towards completing the ‘triple crown of motorsport’ by winning on debut at Le Mans, having already made a victorious start to life with Toyota in the World Endurance Championship last month at Spa.

Yet as always at Le Mans, there are numerous other stories to be told through this year’s race weekend. Alonso may be in the spotlight this year, but there is so much more to look out for across one of the greatest spectacles in all of global motorsport. the longest-serving motorsport website in the world

We take a look at five other stories to follow closely at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

1. Can Toyota finally win Le Mans?

This has been the big question on everyone’s lips ever since Toyota confirmed it would be remaining in the WEC’s LMP1 class at the end of last year. Having boasted the fastest car outright for three of the past four years, the stars have never quite aligned for Toyota to win Le Mans, with its most heartbreaking of defeats infamously coming on the last lap in 2016 when Kazuki Nakajima ground to a halt on the main straight.

Last year was Toyota’s race to lose as it outpaced Porsche both in qualifying, setting a new lap record in the process, and in the race, only for a meltdown overnight to see all three TS050 Hybrid cars entered hit trouble, throwing away a likely victory.

Porsche’s decision to close its LMP1 programme at the end of last year left Toyota to consider whether it was worth continuing as the sole manufacturer in the class, deciding to do so after efforts by the series organisers allowed a number of privateers to step up and boost the number of cars fighting for victory.

Despite new rules being brought in to try and cut Toyota’s advantage, the deck still remains stacked heavily in its favour heading into the race. Q1 saw both its cars lap two seconds faster than the non-hybrid privateers, while in the race it will be able to complete longer stints and make faster pit stops than its rivals. Its cars are also proven and - for the most part - reliable, with the team simulating as many random issues as possible through testing in anticipation of disaster striking again. Both its driver line-ups are brimmed with talent, featuring no weak points.

But if there’s any race in global motorsport where certainties don’t exist, it’s the 24 Hours of Le Mans. All it takes is two moments of madness or hard luck, and bang: another twist in Toyota’s torrid history at this race.

Yet if it can survive 24 hours, at long last, Toyota will be victorious at Le Mans. And even without the competition once posed by Porsche and Audi, the enormity of such an achievement should not be underestimated.


2. A booming GTE-Pro class

When I spoke with WEC CEO Gerard Neveu about the uncertain future for LMP1 last year ahead of Porsche’s departure, he was somewhat brief and closed. Yet when I mentioned GTE, he lit up and became very, very animated, outstretching his arms as though to embrace the success of the most manufacturer-heavy class.

GTE-Pro has always been an exciting platform for manufacturers to more closely race to their road car specifications, but has been given an extra shot in the arm this year by the arrival of BMW with its new M8 GTE car and the addition of two extra Porsche factory entires.

In total, GTE-Pro will boast a total of 17 entries, all of which are directly backed by a manufacturer. The same can really only be said of two cars in LMP1, and, for that matter, six (or, at a push, eight) cars in Formula 1. Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin, Porsche, BMW and Corvette will all be vying for top honours in class, with the margins between success and failure being finer than ever in a class stacked with talented drivers.

For all of the doom and gloom about the decline of manufacturer interest in LMP1, GTE has managed to go from strength-to-strength, perhaps being overlooked. So make sure you keep a close eye on the fight that unfolds at the front of this hugely fun class this weekend

3. The future of WEC’s top tier

Much as Formula 1 is working hard to define its future and build a rulebook for 2021, the WEC has also been having similar discussions, with the full details of what its 2020 world will look like due to be revealed on Friday at the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s press conference.

The FIA confirmed following the latest World Motor Sport Council meeting in Manila that the series would be moving down a ‘hypercar’ route with its top tier, effectively confirming the death knell for LMP1. While the class has pushed the technical envelope for over a decade and in many ways offered a new golden era of sports car racing, it has also become wildly expensive. It simply cannot go on.

The Hypercar route, potentially due to be known as ‘GTP’ (GT Prototype) will allow manufacturers to tap into more of their high-end models without breaking the bank. The hope is that it will attract big names such as McLaren, Ferrari and Aston Martin to return to the top class at Le Mans and try to fight for overall victory. It’s certainly an attractive proposition, but will the full picture look good enough to tap up the interest to create a proper championship at the front of the pack once again?

All will become clear on Friday. And in an extra twist, we may even get an idea of what the rules come 2024 will look like, looking way into the future.

Jenson Button, SMP Racing,

4. The ‘other’ high-profile rookies

The buzz may be around Fernando Alonso, yet there are a number of other high-profile drivers who will be making their Le Mans debut this weekend, getting a first taste of the spirit of the world’s most famous sports car race.

Besides Alonso, 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button is undoubtedly the big draw. Following a year out of full-time racing, Button was eager to get back behind the wheel this season, signing up for a season in Super GT before dovetailing it with a move into the WEC, starting at Le Mans this weekend with SMP Racing.

Button is not the only former F1 name to be making his first Le Mans appearance this weekend. Pastor Maldonado has been impressive so far in his outings with DragonSpeed in LMP2, while former Sauber driver Felipe Nasr is in the same class, racing for Cetilar Villorba Corse.

Maldonado and Nasr will be joined in LMP2 by Giedo van der Garde, who lines up for Racing Team Nederland for the first time at Le Mans, and Paul di Resta, whose new adventure in sports car racing will see him join up with United Autosports for the race. In GTE-Pro, two-time grand prix starter Antonio Giovinazzi will be making his first start at Le Mans with the Ferrari-backed AF Corse team.

Outside of the F1 alumni, there are some other big names making their Le Mans debuts. Juan Pablo Montoya could theoretically complete the triple crown this weekend (albeit relying on his United Autosports LMP2 entry taking overall victory), while Antonio Felix da Costa will also be making his first start at the Circuit de la Sarthe with BMW. Also keep an eye out for sports car star Renger van der Zande in LMP1 with DragonSpeed.


5. What a difference a year makes

Perhaps the biggest surprise at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is just how much excitement and hubbub there is around the place, considering where we were 12 months ago. When the first suggestions emerged that Porsche could quit LMP1, the outlook was bleak. The series seemed to be ailing badly, with the picture for 2018 and beyond hard to imagine.

And yet things have turned out well. Sure, LMP1 is by no means perfect, with Toyota ready to run away with things at the front, but the rest of the field remains as competitive as ever. The presence of - fine, OK, he’s in here - Alonso has been an enormous boost, as has the added interest thanks to drivers such as Button and Montoya. The media centre at Le Mans is fuller than ever, putting added pressures on the hearty PRs and teams to keep everyone happy, all while dealing with the challenge of a 24 hour race.

Friday’s rules announcement will help outline the long-term future of the WEC and, in many ways, show just how healthy and how strong it is. The gap from the end of the 2019 ‘super season’ to the new rules coming in for 2020 is a concern, as is the reliance on a wave of new manufacturer interest in GTP. Much like Toyota’s win hopes this weekend, there’s no guarantee about what the WEC will look like in two or three years’ time.

But there is a feeling that if the series could survive the last 12 months, it can survive anything. The super season helped buy some more time, as well as realising the long-held desire to make Le Mans the grand finale. McLaren’s Formula 1 struggles helped bring one of the biggest stars in global motorsport to the championship. The post-Porsche world hasn’t been as apocalyptic as once feared.

So whether you’re a Le Mans veteran or a newcomer to the race eager to see how Alonso and Button get on, revel in the excitement of one of the world’s classic races. There’s nothing else quite like it.