Ever since Fernando Alonso played his part in Toyota’s maiden 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in June last year, it has felt like the writing has been on the wall for his continued presence in its LMP1 programme.

Completing leg two of three of his Triple Crown bid was always the chief purpose of Alonso’s arrival in the FIA World Endurance Championship, making it unsurprising that, on Wednesday, he announced he would not be returning for the 2019/20 season.

But the WEC adventure has been more than just a box-ticking exercise for Fernando Alonso. It has instead fuelled a furtherment rarely seen among racing drivers of his calibre so late in their careers.

It has made him a better racing driver.

Winding the clock back 12 months, Alonso arrived at Spa very green in sports car terms. He had dipped his toe into the water with an entry to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and had tested Toyota’s TS050 Hybrid LMP1 car, but was lacking any real racing experience.

While his debut at Spa yielded victory from pole alongside co-drivers Sebastian Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, including a late stint from Alonso himself as he fended off Mike Conway in the sister #7 Toyota, there was still plenty of room for improvement. A couple of hairy moments in traffic and grass touches showed that Alonso was still getting to grips with life in sports car racing.

But by Le Mans, he was flying. His majestic night stint was instrumental in the #8 crew winning the race, proving he deserved his place at the top table of sports car racing. Further successes followed through the WEC season, with another starring role upon his return to Daytona leading to victory for Wayne Taylor Racing. Casting aside all context of him being a Formula 1 star, Alonso has quite simply been one of the best sports car drivers on the planet.

“Twelve months ago, sitting here, I had zero experience of WEC,” Alonso reflected at Spa on Wednesday.

“In one year, amazing things have happened to me in sports cars. I won Spa, Le Mans, Silverstone, Sebring and Daytona. The last 12 months were better than my dreams.” (It’s almost all true. Alonso did win at Silverstone before both Toyotas were disqualified for a technical infringement.)

The rewards have been huge for Alonso not just in terms of silverware, but also in his own development as a driver. He spoke last year ahead of his WEC debut about his wish to be “more connected to the sport and to being a better driver” outside of the Formula 1 bubble. Looking back on his year in sports car racing, Alonso can firmly say he achieved that.

“Definitely I have improved a lot as a driver,” Alonso said, “in terms of approaching this type of racing, about traffic management and how to deal with long-distance races - 24-hour races especially – and the teamwork needed in this type of racing.

“There are many things that when you are enclosed in a bubble in Formula 1 that you don’t see, and you need to touch it with your hands one day.”

And it is this desire to escape the ‘bubble’ that made Alonso decide against continuing his stint with Toyota in the WEC into the 2019/20 season. As warmly as he may have spoken of the championship and of Toyota – “when you come into this programme, you see clearly why they dominate” – committing to another season would have left him tied up until June 2020, potentially closing doors elsewhere.

“I need to wait and see what is going to happen in the next couple of months. Being free of any obligations is the best way I could approach those opportunities,” Alonso said.

“If I was already committed with something, maybe those opportunities would not be there.I have two or three ideas on my mind that you will probably know in a couple of months.

“I am working on those, and we will continue this challenge of mastering different ways of motorsport.”

So surely after 12-month period that has seen him drive a wide variety of racing cars and compete in some of the greatest events on the planet, it can be considered the most fun year of his career?

When I put that to him, Alonso snapped back immediately. “No. Not fun."

Confusing, right? But then came an explanation that again shows the steely competitor that remains at Alonso’s core.

“It’s just a challenge," he said. "If it’s for fun, maybe you take a different approach. But I didn’t do it for fun. I did it to win.

“And when you do it for winning, you are completely out of your comfort zone. You don’t know many of the things that the car can take, the systems they do. You need to study a lot the buttons and different strategies that every team has.

“It was not probably as fun as it looked from the outside.”

Not only is there Alonso’s own ambitions pushing him to win in everything he races, but he also spoke of the heavy the weight of expectation from the wider racing world.

“The fact is that the level of competitiveness that is required and is expected from me is extremely high,” he said.

“I cannot go to Daytona and finish seventh. I cannot come to WEC and finish second or third or fifth. I cannot go to whatever series I do in the future and finish 10th. I need to be on pole position. I need to win and to be the fastest.

“That’s difficult, you know? Probably that’s the biggest difficulty, and the biggest thing people don’t see from the outside.

“They see that I’m trying different cars and switching from different series, but they forgot that in Formula 1, I was 21-0 last year [referring to his qualifying record against Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren last year].

“In WEC, I was in pole position at Sebring last time. I was quicker at Le Mans. When I do different series, maybe you don’t know the times, but maybe I’m quicker.

“That’s something that people will not realise, probably.”

These pressures may come with the territory of being Fernando Alonso, but when the Spaniard claims he is currently at the peak of his racing powers, you better believe it. His WEC and sports cars adventure has helped grow his legacy, his reputation, but most importantly, his own abilities.

And he’s not done yet.

 

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