Why Alonso is really doing Daytona
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”