Why Alonso is re­ally do­ing Day­tona

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - GARY WATKINS

THERE WASN’T ANY­THING AP­PROACH­ING a master­plan when Fer­nando Alonso set out on his quest to win the un­of­fi­cial triple crown of mo­tor­sport by adding wins in the In­di­anapo­lis 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours to his twin Monaco Grand Prix vic­to­ries. An as­sault on the Day­tona 24 Hours, the open­ing round of the IMSA Sportscar Cham­pi­onship, proves that a clear and co­her­ent strat­egy is be­gin­ning to emerge as he turns his at­ten­tion to Le Mans in his bid to em­u­late the so-far-unique feat of Gra­ham Hill.

The idea of go­ing for Indy glory started out as a bit of ban­ter be­tween Alonso and Mclaren boss Zak Brown. No doubt the path to Alonso driv­ing an LMP2 Ligier-gib­son JSP217 for his boss’s United Au­tosports squad at Day­tona along­side ris­ing Bri­tish star Lando Nor­ris and Phil Han­son be­gan in the same way. But the state­side out­ing re­ally does make sense for a driver look­ing to go on to claim the big­gest prize in sportscar rac­ing.

We don’t know how or when the dou­ble For­mula 1 world cham­pion will make a bid for vic­tory at Le Mans, but he’s not go­ing to strug­gle with the machin­ery what­ever form LMP1 takes in the fu­ture. He proved that when he jumped aboard an oval-spec Indy­car for the first time.

Nor will learn­ing the track at Le Mans cause him many prob­lems. The Cir­cuit de la Sarthe is rel­a­tively easy to pick up.

But Alonso would be in for a cul­ture shock if he pitched up at Le Mans for his first ever sportscar race. Just as he will be when he drives at Day­tona for the first time.

Sportscar rac­ing is a multi-class dis­ci­pline in which am­a­teur rac­ers are very much part of the scene. The speed dif­fer­en­tials be­tween the dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of car are im­mense, and so are the dis­par­i­ties in the abil­i­ties of the driv­ers.

Be­ing able to duck and dive through the traffic with­out los­ing time – or end­ing up with dam­aged machin­ery – is one of the core skills of a top sportscar driver. Learn­ing where and when to pass with the least risk and time loss can only come with ex­pe­ri­ence.

Do­ing a ma­jor sportscar race is the only way to un­der­stand how to read the ‘body lan­guage’ of that GT car ahead as you de­cide whether it’s be­ing driven by a pro­fes­sional who has seen you in their mir­rors or an am­a­teur who hasn’t.

And there’s prob­a­bly no bet­ter place to be­gin that learn­ing process than at the Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way on Jan­uary 27-28 2018. A cir­cuit mea­sur­ing just three and a half miles will be packed full of 50-plus cars for the

IMSA sea­son opener.

Alonso talks about be­com­ing a more “com­plete driver” with his Day­tona par­tic­i­pa­tion, and there’s no doubt it will make him a bet­ter sportscar driver for when

he does make it onto the hal­lowed as­phalt of the Cir­cuit de la Sarthe.

That’s not to say that Alonso couldn’t win Le Mans with­out some prior sportscar ex­pe­ri­ence. There have been some mem­o­rable rookie wins at the 24 Hours.

Most re­cently we had two first-timers in one car when Nico Hulken­berg and Earl Bam­ber claimed Porsche’s first vic­tory since 1998 to­gether with Nick Tandy.

Hulken­berg was the least ex­pe­ri­enced of the three – he was go­ing into only his sec­ond en­durance event when he pitched up at Le Mans. It might be un­fair to pick on one in­ci­dent from the 2015 race, but he very nearly lost it for the win­ning crew in the in­ci­dent that sent As­ton Martin am­a­teur Roald Goethe into the bar­ri­ers. How­ever you want to ap­por­tion blame for that in­ci­dent at the lit­tle kink that leads the cars out of the Porsche Curves se­quence, the fact is that it could well have handed vic­tory to the sis­ter 919 Hy­brid.

Some might point to an­other cel­e­brated rookie vic­tory by a driver who would go on to make quite a name for him­self at Le Mans. Tom Kris­tensen starred on his de­but in the 24 Hours with Joest Rac­ing’s Porsche WSC95, set­ting a string of fastest laps one af­ter an­other dur­ing the night on the way to vic­tory with Michele Al­boreto and Ste­fan Jo­hans­son in 1997.

Kris­tensen hadn’t so much as driven the car be­fore qual­i­fy­ing be­gan, but what is of­ten over­looked is that he had ex­pe­ri­ence of multi-class rac­ing from what was then known as the Ja­panese GT Cham­pi­onship, now the Su­per GT Se­ries.

An­dre Lot­terer, Benoit Tre­luyer and Loic Du­val – Le Mans win­ners all – will tell you that there is no bet­ter train­ing ground for the as­pir­ing LMP1 driver than com­pet­ing in the GT500 class in Su­per GT. Deal­ing with slower GT300 cars is an es­sen­tial part of the game. Alonso surely un­der­stands that he has to learn about the nu­ances of sportscar rac­ing. The idea of im­mers­ing him­self in the dis­ci­pline be­fore he heads for Le Mans proves just how hun­gry he is in his quest to win the triple crown.

Not that we re­ally need to ques­tion his drive and pas­sion. Alonso has proved his mo­ti­va­tion ev­ery time he has climbed aboard an un­com­pet­i­tive Mclaren-honda over the past three sea­sons.

“The idea proves just how hun­gry Alonso is”

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