ALONSO’S DRAMATIC DAYTONA
SPANIARD’S TORRID FLORIDA OUTING
Last weekend’s Daytona 24 Hours marked the latest instalment in the blossoming romance between Fernando Alonso and the United States, one that shows few signs of fading.
The hype surrounding Alonso’s sportscar racing debut alongside United Autosports team-mates Lando Norris and Phil Hanson was never going to match that which accompanied his tilt on the Indianapolis 500 last year, which marked the start of the Spaniard’s mission to emulate Graham Hill and become only the second-ever man to capture motorsport’s ‘Triple Crown’.
But the two-time Formula 1 world champion’s presence certainly added extra intrigue to a star-studded Prototype class, which already boasted the likes of Lance Stroll, Felipe Nasr, Paul di Resta, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya doing battle alongside the cast of IMSA Sportscar Championship regulars.
Alonso was a frequent visitor to the media centre throughout the course of the Daytona weekend, and on Thursday – shortly after an opening practice marked by a puncture for the #23 Ligier JS P217 – he was quizzed on just what it is about the States he finds so alluring.
“You know these places, you have these venues and these names in your head when you are a kid,” Alonso said. “When you grow up you see on television these big races: the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, Daytona 24 Hours.
“We play with little cars when we are young, and you see the name of Daytona, Indianapolis, and one day eventually you are here as a professional racing driver and you are racing at these venues.
“Also the speedways are different compared to Europe; everything here is bigger, the size of everything is huge, the paddock area, all the facilities here, the grandstand. Everything is very impressive. It’s a nice feeling to put the helmet on and go racing at these iconic circuits.”
While Alonso headed to Indy last year with a proven, race-winning team, from the outset it was clear at Daytona that the Ligier used by United Autosports was not the pick of the prototype bunch – and so it came as little surprise to see him qualify down in 13th and almost a full second off the quickest of the Cadillac Dpis.
It was a different situation in the race, however, and in particular as night began to fall at the Florida track the #23 machine slowly crept its way up the leaderboard into the top 10; by the end of hour seven the car had even made it as high as fourth.
Much like in 2017 though, Alonso’s hopes were dashed by the machinery at his disposal. Rather than a blown Honda power unit, the chief culprit this time around was a braking issue that required a lengthy trip to the garage to change the master cylinder.
“The car felt quite competitive,” Alonso said after the race. “It was a surprise because we were not very competitive in practice three weeks ago [during ‘Roar’ pre-event testing], and we were not competitive this week in pure lap time pace.
“In quali [the United cars] were 13th and 15th but then in the race this changed and we were probably in the fastest three cars on track when we were running.
“That gave us a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum in the night, we recovered two laps – also thanks to the safety car – and after that we had a brake issue, the first time that had happened to the team, and we lost 40 minutes. Then we had a throttle issue and again a brake issue.”
Arguably, the star of the #23 Ligier was not Alonso, but the man he was ostensibly supposed to be mentoring through the weekend: Mclaren F1 junior Norris.
After all, it was the 18-year-old that vaulted the team into some sort of contention for a top position with a superb stint in the wet in the early evening – and ended the race with the fastest lap not only in his car but also of any LMP2 driver in the race.
Even if the Briton’s efforts were later undone when the car began to experience its issues, Alonso recognised Norris’s contribution, and spoke of the Carlin Formula 2 driver in glowing terms when recalling the youngster’s drives.
“Really, it’s not a surprise but the people who don’t know Lando, maybe it was a surprise for them,” said the Spaniard post-race. “The stints he did were very impressive – the teamwork, the preparation, the focus.
“I think at night when we switched to wet tyres we were fifth, one minute behind the leader, and then we switched to slick tyres again in damp conditions, Lando driving, and we were 27 seconds behind the leaders.
“So even in wet conditions, first time in prototype car, first time at Daytona, first time on Continental tires, he recovered 33 seconds in 20 laps, or something like that. He is 18 years old, so that’s quite impressive.”
Alonso rated his chances of making his Le Mans bow this year as “60-40” after the race – up from 50-50 earlier in the week – but did say he was keen to return to Daytona next year for a second crack at the American endurance classic.
“It’s a race in January when normally the motorsport calendar is quite empty, when I think for us drivers it’s quite convenient to come here to do this race,” he said.
“It’s an iconic race, a prestigious race and it’s in a part of the year when we are quite relaxed, normally preparing ourselves for our season in whatever category you are.
“Instead of being on a bicycle or in the gym, you are driving, so it’s much better preparation.”
It certainly looks as if there are still plenty more chapters yet to be scribed in Alonso’s own version of the American Dream. ■
Alonso ran aboard United Autosports P2 Spaniard showed his pace, but so did Norris
Braking issues hurt the Ligier in the race
Night-to-day stint was an exciting time