In the early days of postwar auto racing, it was not unusual for the best drivers to make guest appearances in other series, winning Formula One grands prix and entering small events and regional championships.
As Formula One became more professional, with increased investment from sponsors and governments, teams began to insist that their drivers concentrate on the sport that was paying their salaries.
But that has been changing. Drivers have begun trying to claim either of racing’s triple crowns, and to do that they have to race for other masters.
The Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race compose a triple crown of motorsport, the three most prestigious events on the world auto-racing calendar. An alternate version of the crown is winning Indy, Le Mans and a Formula One world championship.
About 15 drivers have attempted the feat, but many have won only one of the three events. Graham Hill of England is the only driver to have succeeded. He won the Monaco Grand Prix five times, the Formula One world championship twice and the Indianapolis 500 once, and completed both versions of the triple crown in 1972 when he won Le Mans.
This year, Fernando Alonso, who races for the McLaren Formula One team, is hoping to complete another leg of the triple crown by winning Le Mans for Toyota, sharing the cockpit with Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi, both former Formula One drivers.
“I’ve never been shy about my aim of winning motorsport’s triple crown — the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” Alonso said when news of his Le Mans entry was confirmed in January. “We tried for Indy last year, came close, but just missed out.
“This year, I have the chance, thanks to McLaren, to race for the win at Le Mans. It is a big challenge, much can go wrong, but I am ready, prepared and looking forward to the fight.”
Of the 180 names on the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans entry list, one or more drivers in each of the four categories has Formula One experience.
While Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship have long been popular destinations for Formula One retirees hoping to extend their professional racing careers, active Formula One drivers were notable for their absence until 2015.
When Alonso, who was driving for Ferrari at the time, was the official starter of the 2014 Le Mans race, he said he wanted to compete there someday. In 2017, while with the McLaren Formula One team, he stepped away to race at the Indy 500, where he led for 27 laps before his engine failed.
“I was close on a couple of occasions when I was at Ferrari, but Ferrari was not very keen on sharing me with another brand,” he said about an earlier attempt to race at Le Mans. “When I joined McLaren, I was very, very close, but in the end it didn’t happen.”
Zak Brown, the chief executive of McLaren, said the team was fine with Alonso’s Le Mans decision.
“It’s no secret that Fernando has wanted to contest the Le Mans 24 Hours,” Brown said in a media release. “And I think everybody within our organization appreciates that a motivated, hungry and happy world-class driver such as Fernando is a formidable asset for any team in F1.”
Speaking to the British racing magazine Autosport, Alonso said he regretted not racing for Porsche at Le Mans, a seat that went to Hülkenberg.
“In 2015 I was so, so close to racing,” Alonso said. “I regretted it for a long time, because Nico took the place, and not only the place — he took the trophy.
“In 2016 I tried again; in 2017 I gave up a little bit because we were in a different situation” in Formula One, he said about McLaren. “For 2018, I made sure that it was a possibility.”
But where Hülkenberg was able to lift the Le Mans trophy, Alonso is hoping to achieve an even bigger feat: winning the 2018 World Endurance Championship.
“I don’t want to win only Le Mans, I want to be World Endurance champion.”
After Porsche’s withdrawal from the W.E.C. in 2017 and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s decision to create a 2018-19 “super season” of eight races across the two years, including two 24 Hours of Le Mans races, managing travel schedules among the different championships became easier.
Alonso will be the only current Formula One driver at Le Mans this year, but in LMP1 he will be competing against seven men he has raced against in Formula One: the 2009 Formula One world champion, Jenson Button; Buemi, the 2014 W.E.C. and 2015-16 Formula E champion; the three-time Le Mans winner André Lotterer; and the W.E.C. teammates Kamui Kobayashi and Kazuki Nakajima and privateer entrants Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna.
Drivers rarely move from the W.E.C. to Formula One. Lotterer made an appearance for the Caterham team at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix, but that was for just one race.
This year, Brendon Hartley has been driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso in Formula One. He raced in the European Le Mans Series in 2012 and 2013 and then moved to Porsche and the W.E.C. in 2014, where he was part of two championships. In 2017, he was part of the Le Mans-winning Porsche LMP1 team.
Having recently made the move back into Formula One from W.E.C., Hartley spent the end of 2017 racing in both categories. Asked what it was like moving between the two series, he called the experience “surprisingly tricky.”
“I thought I was going to feel right at home — it’s been my home for the last four years — but it took a couple of laps for it to feel comfortable again,” he said, referring to Le Mans. “The seating position’s quite different from Formula One, having a roof over your head, different perspective, but after five laps I felt back at home.
“What I do know is, from working with Porsche the last years, it made my transition quite smooth to Formula One because it’s a similar amount of people involved; very similar structure in terms of engineering; pressure,” he said. “Driving at Le Mans for Porsche, there’s a big amount of pressure on your shoulders, so I guess all of those things I’ve learned to deal with, so that was obviously very helpful.”