Fernando Alonso

  • 6 Reasons for Loving Spa Francorchamps

    The 6 hours of Spa Francorchamps kicks off a new era for the FIA World Endurance Championship on May 5th as the premier series for long-distance sports car racing launches its unique ‘super-season’ – and you can be there to witness it with Speed Chills.

    As you may have seen, your favourite motor racing travel operator has some great offers for the race at Belgium’s majestic Spa-Francorchamps circuit – and it got us thinking: what exactly is it about this place that makes it a mecca for motorheads?

    Having fun at Spa Francorchamps

    So here it is: our six-point guide to the jewel of European motor racing. If you haven’t been, it’s a must for any bucket list. And if you have, well, treat this as a reminder why a return is long overdue.

    1. Spectators’ paradise

    From Les Combes to Rivage, down to No Name and Pouhon, sweeping through the Les Fagnes esses to Stavelot and on to Blanchimont… there’s no finer strip of race track anywhere in the world. The elegant pines of the Ardennes forests make for a stunning setting as the circuit climbs through the epic Eau Rouge and Raidillon, then along the Kemmel straight before swooping and diving back through the valley over 4.3 magnificent miles. Our tip: take a decent pair of walking boots and stroll all the way up to the inside of Rivage. The views all the way back to the paddock are stunning, and there’s nowhere better to watch (and listen) to the world’s finest racing cars.

    2. The adorable Ardennes

    There’s something in the air around these parts – and we don’t just mean the odd drop of rain… Even away from the circuit, you can almost taste the motor racing history that has seeped into this ancient woodland over the past near-century. Francorchamps village, just a wander up the hill from La Source and the prime location for the Speed Chills guest houses, is quite charming – the perfect place to relax with a glass of something good after a day at the races. And a visit to the town of Spa itself, connected by superb Belgian country roads, is worth a visit too – especially if you’re looking for somewhere with a touch of class to eat. Fine restaurants are plentiful.

    Porsche 911 GTE-Pro at Spa Francorchamps

    3. frites and mayonnaise: magnifique!

    But in truth, who needs haute cuisine when you can indulge in the pride of Belgian fare. After a long hike around the circuit’s sweeps, the sustenance from a portion of local frites topped with a dollop of mayo will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted – and that’s a cast-iron promise. We know: you’re thinking ‘they’re only chips’. But think again. In these parts, they are a genuine delicacy that are an essential side order to a weekend feast of motor racing.

    4. Belgian beer (hic!)

    And what better way to wash them down than with a glug of the area’s famous local mineral water… Only joking! Belgium is quite correctly famous for its range of dark and blond beers. Our next vital tip: tuck the car up for the night and take a table at L’Acqua Rossa or Le Relais de Pommard in Francorchamps. The food is good; a quaffed beer or three even better.

    5. The awesome old circuit

    ‘If you love the new circuit, you should have seen the old one…’ It’s something of a cliché for old timers to rave about the ‘old’ Spa – but clichés usually only enter the lexicon because of a fundamental truth, and that’s certainly the case here. Brian Redman, veteran of fearsome Porsche 917s and Ford GT40s and one of the finest sports car races ever, admits he used to cry himself to sleep the night before a race, such was his white fear for the flat out 8.7-mile triangle. Where the modern track turns right at Les Combes, the original circuit ploughed straight on downhill to Burnenville, sweeping right and on to Masta before turning again at Stavelot for the tree-lined blast back to Blanchimont. A true road course, it’s all still there to experience – albeit at a somewhat more modest pace than Henri Pescarolo’s all-time lap record set in 1973 (in a Matra sports car, not a Formula 1) of 163mph… Do not even consider visiting Spa without a drive around the old track, ideally after digging out some old photos to understand just how crazy it used to be. You’ll be mesmerised.

    6. Be a part of history

    A trip this year to the 6 Hours will stand out in the memory for one more significant reason: the birth of the exciting ‘super-season’. In a bid to break with tradition and end a world championship season at Le Mans in June, WEC’s organisers have chosen a new format for their series. Starting at Spa, the championship will then head for the famous 24 Hours at Le Mans, before three more six-hour rounds at Silverstone, Fuji and Shanghai complete the schedule for 2018. But the season won’t stop with the calendar year. In March 2019 it continues with a new 1500-mile race at Sebring in Florida, before returning to Spa for another 6 Hours and finishing at Le Mans. So yes, two 6 hours of Spa Francorchamps and two Le Mans 24 Hours counting for one, single season. It will surely live up to its ‘super’ status.

    Oh, and if this isn’t all reason enough for a visit, there’s also the small matter of a certain Spaniard making his WEC debut at Spa this year. Some bloke from F1. Fernando Alonso, we believe he’s called. In a Toyota LMP1.

    Toyota LMP1 at Spa Francorchamps

    You won’t want to miss that, will you? Come on: what are you waiting for? More on the WEC 6 hours of Spa-Francorchamps

    Damien Smith, former Editor of Motor Sport Magazine

  • Heroes and underdogs

    Lewis Hamilton has cleaned out his social media history, apparently, after a thoughtless Christmas gaff involving some unfortunate comments about his little nephew wearing a princess dress caused the world champion a heap of angry heat.

    Yep, that's as good as it gets on Formula 1 news this winter. Let's just say it's been a particularly quiet off-season in the Grand Prix world.

    Thankfully, there's been plenty of real news to savour in sports car racing. Forget F1 - long-distance endurance racing has given motor racing fans plenty to chew on during the bleak midwinter.

    First, there was the 'Roar before the Rolex 24', the traditional test weekend at the Daytona International Speedway in early January that offered action-starved race fans something of real nourishment to savour.

    Cadillac's DPi dominated, with Action Express, Spirit of Daytona and Wayne Taylor Racing showing the rest the way. Felipe Nasr, recently of Sauber F1 fame, set the pace in the final day 'qualifying' session that decides garage allocations for the race itself on January 27-28. He's raced at Daytona before, way back in 2012, so the Brazilian shouldn't have any trouble recalibrating to long-distance sports car racing at the end of this month.

    Roar Before the Rolex 24 Cadillac DPi

    The bigger question will be whether Fernando Alonso - a slightly higher profile and more successful F1 ace - can make the transition as smoothly.

    The Spaniard was surprised at the lack of running he managed in his first taste of Daytona for the United Autosports team, driving an LMP2 Ligier JSP217. That was a consequence of the test schedule rather than a team shortfall, but whatever the reason, Alonso will be taking steps into the relative unknown come race weekend.

    He was only 12th fastest at the 'Roar' in a car that isn't entirely suited to Daytona's mix of oval banking and twisty road course, but speed is hardly likely to be a problem for one of the great racing drivers of the modern era. What will test him is to know when and how to use that awesome natural ability.

    Lapping traffic is a significant feature at Daytona, perhaps more than at any other sports car race thanks to the size of the grid and the - ahem - mixed quality of drivers. The Rolex 24 remains a genuine pro-am challenge, which makes for an unpredictable cocktail. Is a backmarker you are approaching an experienced hand who knows how to keep clear of contact while maintaining his own pace - or is it a so-called 'gentleman' driver who hasn't checked his mirrors? Alonso won't have a clue.

    Victory at the Rolex 24 certainly looks a long shot for the two-time F1 champion, sharing with impressive youngsters Lando Norris and Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 champion Phil Hanson. Still, his progress will be fascinating and he's sure to be a huge story at Daytona.

    And as the man himself has admitted, this is all about laying the groundwork for a future Le Mans campaign. When and in what car this will happen is impossible to say - sadly it looks unlikely to be 2018 and in a Toyota at this stage - but Le Mans is Alonso's real target.

    For another genuine global motorsporting hero, Le Mans has also long been in his sights, but like Alonso, Alex Zanardi will be testing the waters at Daytona - although he has at least raced in GTs before.

    The Italian, who lost his lower legs in a terrible Indycar crash back in 2001, told me when I interviewed him two summers ago that Le Mans was still an ambition for him. Now, with long-time manufacturer partner BMW, he has gone public on an aim to race at the Rolex 24 in 2019, with a specially adapted M8 GTE. After that, Le Mans will surely be next.

    Zanardi is hugely popular in America after his dominance of Indycar racing in the late 1990s - and his accident only lifted his folk-hero status to new heights.

    When I met him he was preparing for the Rio Paralympics, in his new sport of hand cycling. Success in Brazil added to his London medal haul in 2012, and he now has four golds and two silvers to add to the eight world titles he has won in this discipline. The man is quite incredible, up there with the most charismatic and inspiring racing drivers I ever had the good fortune to meet.

    He'll be a huge draw at Daytona next year.

    Many thousands of miles from the Florida speedbowl and a little closer to home, there was more to whet sports car appetites this week.

    The annual Autosport International racing car show took place in Birmingham, where the wraps came off Ginetta's striking new LMP1 car. Beside new racers from BR Engineering and Rebellion Racing, whose car will be seen for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show in March, the Ginetta represents a shot in the arm for privateer participation at Le Mans.

    Ginetta G60 LMP1 Launch

    As I wrote in my last blog for Speed Chills, new regulations promise to allow non-hybrid privateer entrant a genuine chance to compete with the technical masterpieces that have come from the factory teams in recent years - now reduced to one in the form of Toyota, following the consecutive withdrawals from first Audi and then Porsche.

    Former F1 team Manor Motorsport will run at least one Ginetta at Le Mans in June, and appear to carry genuine hope that the new rules will give them a shot. The evidence of 2016, when an LMP2 almost won overall thanks to the problems endured by the factory hybirds, offers support to that point of view.

    Sitting here right now in the depths of January, before the Ginetta has turned a wheel in anger, it's hard to believe Manor can really challenge Toyota. But the Japanese giant is famous for its abysmal record at the greatest race in the world - so who knows?

    The day of the underdog could be about to return.

    Whatever the reality, right now there is so much to look forward to as Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship begins a bright new era. And it's certainly more interesting than Lewis Hamilton's Twitter feed.

    POSTSCRIPT: Before I sign off, I must add a word or two about another hero: Dan Gurney, the great American all-rounder whose death was announced on Monday morning this week.

    For sports car fans, Gurney's headline achievement was sharing the winning Ford MkIV with AJ Foyt at Le Mans in 1967 - then subsequently inventing the tradition of spraying champagne.

    But of course, that was just one glorious moment in a wonderfully full life. Gurney could race anything, anywhere. A winner in F1, sports cars, Can-Am, Indycars, Trans-Am and NASCAR, he also had a brilliant engineer's brain and in the Eagle Mk1 F1 car, was perhaps responsible for the best-looking Grand Prix car of all time - and one in which he conquered Spa just a week before that Le Mans win.

    Later in life, Gurney's Eagles also took IMSA by storm in the high-powered GTP era of the 1980s and early '90s.

    His life and career straddled the eras like only a handful of other racing men - and perhaps most impressively of all, he remained a much-loved gentleman through it all.

    A great all-rounder in more ways than one, then. RIP.

    Damien Smith, former Editor of Motor Sport Magazine

  • Rolex 24 heads for record distance

    As the race closed in on the half distance mark, the two Team Penske Acura's and the two Action Express Racing Cadillacs were more than two laps clear on the rest of the field. The #7 Penske Acura held the lead in the hands of Ricky Taylor before the next round of pit stops with fierce competition from Joao Barbosa (#5 Mustang Sampling Racing) and Felipe Nasr in the #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac. The young Brazilian's experience was shining through, and was demonstrated by a great move which saw the #31 jumped from fourth in to second. From the exit of the infield on to the banking, Nasr tucked in behind the #5 and #6 Acura's, around the banking and down the back straight before pulling out of the slip stream and beating both cars on the brakes into the bus stop chicane.

    The #2 Tequila Patron ESM and #23 United Autosport cars were both suffering mechanical faults. Ryan Dalziel was forced into the pits with gearbox issues on the #2 car whilst Fernando Alonso was forced into the pits with a brake master cylinder failure. Lando Norris took the wheel as the car emerged from the pits after a 40 minute stint in the garage.

    Ford Chip Ganassi Racing were dominating in GT Le Mans, Dirk Muller leading the way in the #66 car from the #67 of Ryan Brisco with just a couple of seconds between them. Corvette were standing strong in third and fourth with Laurens Vanthoor rounding out the top five in the #912 Porsche GT 911 RSR.

    In GT Daytona, the #33 Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes AMG of British GT and Blancpain racer Adam Christodoulou was leading the way from the #11 GRT Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan of Rolf Ineichen.

    As we passed the 12 hour point, Graham Rahal lost control of the #7 Acura under breaking into turn one, with competition at the front so close, Rahal dropped down to fourth before he could get the car going again. Simon Pagenaud inherited the lead in the #6 sister car with Christian Fittipaldi taking second in the #5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac and Toyota factory driver Mike Conway moving into third in the #31 Whelen Engineering Racing car. The four cars were split by just 20 seconds with Fittipaldi and Conway running nose to tail.

    Ford were still running nose to tail in GTLM with Dirk Muller and Ryan Briscoe over a lap ahead of Mike Rockefeller and Marcel Fassler in the two Corvettes.

    By the end of hour 13 Jan Magnussen (#3) was one lap down on the two Fords whilst Oliver Gavin was two laps down in the #4.

    The front four were still out in front of the rest of the field, the cars swapping positions through the pitstops Mike Conway was in the lead by the end of hour thirteen. The gap between the four cars was beginning to grow and was now out to thirty five seconds. Dane Cameron held second place at the wheel of the #6 Team Penske Acura thirteen seconds behind whilst Christian Fittipaldi now back in third having led in the previous hour. Graham Rahal was still in fourth having spun in the previous hour and pushing to close the gap. Pipo Derani lost a lap on the leaders having regained in in the past hour. The #22 Tequila Patron ESM was two laps down in fifth place. The #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Jota sat sixth in the hands of Felix Rosenqvist. Ho-Pin Tung had issues in the sister Jackie Chan DC car left the track at the Bus Stop Chicane, damaging the rear wing and rear body work.

    Pipo Derani came in to the pits shortly into the fourteenth hour with smoke pouring from the engine. A blown turbo charger knocked the #22 Tequila Patron ESM out of contention. The #31 Cadillac continued to pull ahead at the front of the pack with just three cars left on the lead lap now. Having got into the car a couple of hours previously, young Lando Norris was lapping almost a second quicker than the race leaders.

    Filipe Albuquerque retook the lead at the end of hour 15 in the #5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac. The Portuguese driver lead a three way fight for the lead between the Cadillacs and the #7 Team Penske Acura which now had Helio Castroneves at the wheel. Eric Curran in the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac began the hour in the lead from Action Express Racing team-mate Albuquerque but was soon delayed as rear brake light failure necessitated changing the rear wing in a off-sequence pit-stop. The stop dropped him a minute and a half behind his team-mate and had dropped a lap off the leader by the end of the hour. Albuquerque took a 12 second lead as a result.

    Bruno Senna sat in fourth place in the #32 United Autosports Ligier two laps down on the top 3. Former Audi driver Loic Duval held fifth in the #54 Core Autosports Oreca.

    In GTLM, Ford were still leading the way comfortably, Sebastien Bourdais leading the #67 Ford of Scott Dixon. Corvette were over a lap behind still, Antonio Garcia holding third place in the #3. The two Fords switched positions every couple of laps, the gap holding at less than a second as they swapped positions around the banking, it was a fantastic display of precision driving from the two cars, neither driver putting a foot wrong. Antonio Garcia was out on his own, one lap up on Tommy Milner but a lap behind the Fords.

    It was a tough debut for BMW who were debuting the M8 GTE. The #25 car of Philipp Eng spent a prolonged period of time behind the wall.

    In GTD, Alvaro Parente took the lead for Acura from the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini and the #11 GRT Lamborghini that had been running nose to tail for most of the hour. Trent Hindman gave the #86 Acura over to Parente who quickly set about hunting down the #48 Lamborghini Perera under went a full brake change at the pit stop and dropped down the order to fifth.

    A third Full Course Yellow during hour 16 but all attention was on the outcome of unseen contact to the #7 Team Penske Acura saw the car pulled into the garage for repairs. Hello Castroneves dropped a number of laps and as a result, the #32 United Autosports car inherited third.

    The Full Course Yellow was caused by Jorg Bergmeister who ran wide through the Bus Stop Chicane, the Park Place Motorsports car span and made contact with the inside wall. Bergmeister got the car going again and continued on down in twelfth place in GTD. A number of cars took the opportunity to pit for new tyres and fuel under the FCY; the #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini took the opportunity for a brake replacement and tyres, gifting the lead back to the #11 GRT Lamborghini. The #48 returned to the race in third. The caution period lasted for fifteen minutes before returning to green. The #5 car lead the restart and quickly lapped the #31 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac which had suffered issues in the previous stint.

    Renger van der Zander suffered yet another right rear puncture before the team made the decision to withdraw the car from the race on safety grounds. Speaking on IMSA Radio, "I can't put into words how disappointing this has been for our partners, the team, the drivers" Wayne Taylor said after retiring the car. "We had a tyre failure with Jordan in the car once, we went to Continental and we were within the tyre pressures. We continued on and Renger had six or seven catastrophic failures. We have gone through so many parts on the car that now, because nobody can tell us what is happening, I can not afford to put a driver at risk."

    With the sun rising over Daytona, the #5 was pushed back into the garage for a service under Full Course Yellow conditions. The car had been losing water overnight resulting in overheating. The car was back on track with minimal delay. The #86 Michael Shank Racing Acura GTD caused the off FCY after briefly leaving the track.

    Having suffered from a multitude of issues throughout the race, the #55 Mazda Team Joest car pulled onto the side of the track, the rear of the car engulfed in flames. Jonathan Bomarito exited the car safely as the marshals extinguished the blaze. The #55 had been running fifteenth at the time, aiming for a top ten finish. The #77 sister was was later pushed in behind the wall. At the front, Colin Braun was pushing hard in the #54 CORE Autosports P2 car, hunting down third place which was currently occupied by the #32 United Autosport Ligier.

    Ford were still dominant in GTLM, the two #66 and #67 GT's a lap up on Corvette. The #3 car was arguably still in contention should something happen to either one of the Fords.

    Katherine Legge was slowly catching the GTD class leader in the #86 Acura NSX as the sun rose higher over the Florida coast line. Having run off the circuit and through an advertising banner at the International Horseshoe in front of other cars, Legge was under stewards investigation. Running through the advertising barrier resulted in debris and sandbags being scattered all over the track which led to a Full Course Yellow.

    Mike Conway's hopes of taking victory came to an end in the 19th hour. The #31 Cadillac lost three laps due to a leak in the radiator system which saw the car return to the its to be refilled. Unlike the #5 Cadillac which was suffering from similar issues, Conway pitted under full green flag running and lost a substantial amount of time to the race leaders. The problem struck for Conway in the midst of battle with Christian Fittipaldi as the pair raced through the Daytona infield. Fitipaldi was left with a comfortable lead but he was under pressure from Colin Braun who was fighting to reclaim a lap on the leaders. Brauns move on Fittipaldi meant he was now on the same lap as the third place #32 United Autosport Ligier and in genuine contention for third place. Braun took the quickest lap of the race at this point, taking two seconds from Will Own in the Ligier. Braun took third place shortly after, Paul Di Resta had clutch problems leaving the pits but eventually got going with the clutch removed. The #32 car was now running firth behind Ho-Pin Tung in the #78 Jackie Chan DC Oreca. Meanwhile, it was more bad luck for the #23 United Autosport Ligier as it was back behind the wall.

    The previous FCY had eliminated Fords advantage in GTLM, the #3 Corvette with Mike "Rocky" Rockenfeller was right under the rear wing of Ryan Briscoe in the #67 Ford but was unable to get by. The fight was on as the race entered the final hours. Adam Christodoulou was leading GTD but was out of sync on the pitstops, in reality, it was the #11 GRT Lamborghini with Lamborghini factory driver Mirko Bortolotti at the wheel that would hold the lead once Christodoulou stopped. The #11 GRT crew had put in a stunning performance having started the race last due to a qualifying infringement. but halfway through hour 19, with the Mercedes in the pits, Bortolotti took the lead from the #48 Paul Miller Motorsports Lamborghini. The #86 Michael Shank Acura held third place. The #29 Monaplast Land Audi of Christopher Mies had fought his way back up the field and now sat in sixth place. The #51 Spirit of Racing Ferrari ended the hour in the wall at the Bus Stop, Paul Dalla Lana made heavy contact with the tyre wall.

    Back at the front, Joao Barbosa held a four lap lead and backed off the pace a fraction to conserve the car, putting in a record length stint in the process of 24 laps. Felipe Nasr held second place in the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac but he had Loic Duval rapidly closing the gap in the #53 Core Autosports Oreca. Both lead Cadillacs were still suffering from overheating issues but whilst Barbosa could ease off the pace to save the car, Nasr was having to push to hold of the advancing Duval.

    Despite the gap closing dramatically in GTLM between the Fords and third place Corvette at the end of the last caution period, both of the Chip Ganassi GTs managed to pull out a 40 second advantage by the end of hour 21. Risi Competition suffered another right rear puncture which dropped them to the rear of the GTLM field. Speculation from the pit lane during the night questioned whether Continental had issued 12 month old tyres which was resulting in the failures? The more likely cause of failures was the amount of green flag running we have seen this year. The 2018 Rolex 24 At Daytona is on track to be a record breaking distance race.

    Filipe Albuquerque held a comfortable lead as the race entered the penultimate hour of the 2018 Rolex 24 At Daytona. Albuquerque had backed off the ultimate pace to ensure the engine made it to the end of the race. As a result the four lap advantage the team had held just a couple of hours previously was now down to just one lap over the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac. All of a sudden, having been 3 laps down, Mike Conway was now back in the game. His focus however was on the car behind him and securing a 1-2 finish for Action Express Racing. By the end of the hour, the CORE Autosport car had dropped back a lap on Conway.

    Slightly further behind, the battle was raging for fourth place between Bruno Senna (#32) and Antonio Felix de Costa in the #78 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca. De Costa was hit with a drive thru penalty for speeding in the pits which saw Senna extend his lead. Juan Pablo Montoya was also handed a drive thru penalty after forcing the #29 Audi of Kelvin van der Linde off the circuit on the infield Kink.

    The #23 United Autosports Ligier was back behind the wall with further undisclosed issues.

    In GTLM, it was the same old story; Ford out front, the #66 leading at this point in time as we near the end of hour 23 by just 2.3 seconds. Jan Magnussen was a lap off the pair down in third.

    Lamborghini continued to lead the way in GTD and are on track for their first ever 24 Hour race win. Lamborghini have never won a 24 hour race be-it Daytona, Nurburging, Le Mans or Spa to name but a few. It is Mirko Bortolotti who leads the way for Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini. The car that started last after a qualifying infringement, carries a 30 second lead over the #86 Michael Shank Racing Acura of Alvaro Parente.

  • Why London ‘ExCels’ for petrolheads

    The capital is the place to be this week for car and racing enthusiasts as the London Classic Car Show returns to the cavernous halls of the ExCel complex.

    If you head to the ExCel (and you really should) be sure to pop by the Speed Chills stand in the Historic Motorsport International Show section (HM133) where you can win a trip for four to Le Mans Classic this summer. Scooping that prize really would make your visit worthwhile.

    Historic Motorsport International 2018

    Highlights of previous shows include curated displays celebrating the careers of F1 design heroes Adrian Newey and Gordon Murray, while six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx made a rare public appearance in Britain last year to celebrate his 70th birthday. He was on great form, as I found out first-hand during a privileged one-on-one interview before the show opened.

    So the 2018 edition has a lot to live up. Thankfully, the line-up looks certain to deliver once again.

    Nigel Mansell is guest of honour this time around and will receive the show's Icon Award. The 1992 F1 World Champion (who, you might remember, also made an ignominious appearance at Le Mans in 2010, crashing out early on) will appear on Sunday afternoon and is bound to draw a crowd. He always does.

    Among the cars from his career that will be on display is the Williams-Renault FW14B in which he claimed his F1 title in emphatic fashion more than 25 years ago. Hard to believe it was that long ago.

    Another draw will be the Getaway Car display curated by TV actor Philip Glenister (he of Ashes to Ashes fame and therefore a man who will always be associated with the Audi Quattro). For me, a Jaguar Mk2 has to be the ultimate getaway car, in real life or fiction, so I was cheered to see Glenister agrees. One is among his collection.

    More motoring personalities will appear on stage at the Supagard Theatre, situated in the sister Historic Motorsport International show taking place in a nearby hall (and open to all Classic Car ticket holders). My old mate Henry Hope-Frost is hosting and will ensure plenty of entertaining chatter to complement the wonderful array of machinery on display.

    The London Classic Car Show, which uniquely includes a Grand Avenue upon which road and racing cars parade each day, opens on Thursday evening with a special preview, then runs through Friday and into the weekend.

    Speaking of Le Mans, you can't have missed the big news for this year's 24 Hours in June. I must admit, I thought it was a long shot for 2018 – but it's confirmed: Fernando Alonso is heading for La Sarthe to make his Le Mans debut in a Toyota hybrid LMP1.

    What a huge boost for the race, particularly in the wake of Porsche's withdrawal. Alonso's status in F1 will make him the headline figure in June and even if one driver can't make up for Porsche's LMP1 absence, his presence will probably draw more attention to the great race this year than we've seen for a while.

    Can he win first time out, as his F1 comrade Nico Nulkenberg did a couple of years ago for Porsche? Well, that's absolutely his intention. And with Toyota bound to be hot favourites in the absence of ‘factory' opposition, the Spaniard knows he has a great chance.

    He should at least get further than Mansell managed... Then again, he'll also be more than aware that he can't take anything for granted, especially give the team he's driving for. Toyota's hoodoo at Le Mans is becoming a heavy weight for the Japanese giant to bear as each year passes. To win the race, Alonso and his team-mates will have to beat the race – and that is something Toyota has famously never achieved, despite a chain of painful close calls.

    What a time to lift the curse. It's going to be unmissable.

    Remember to visit Speed Chills on stand HM133!

  • You don't need Alonso to love Daytona

    Was it just me, or did the motorsport world perceptibly shift off its axis in late October? The Indy 500 had been amazing enough – but Fernando Alonso, two-time Formula 1 world champion and the man considered the greatest grand prix driver of his generation, was now dropping another sensational news bomb.

    He told us he's all set to race in the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona in an LMP2 prototype.

    Come again?

    This is a race that 15-20 years ago had been all but reduced to the status of a glorified 'clubbie', featuring a hardened band of specialist teams, with seasoned pros mixing it with well-heeled amateurs. It was a curio, a throwback to previous eras – and little more.

    To those who only follow F1 today, it still won't offer much of a blip on their radar. But to anyone with a wider (and more developed) racing perspective, the Daytona 24 Hours is now back to its best, the season opener for a terrifically healthy and entertaining American sportscar championship featuring a selection of some of the best long-distance racing drivers on the planet.

    It's still an oddity thanks to its quirky and utterly charming character. But it's also a race that once again matters, just as it did when Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s were duking it out around its high banking in the early 1970s.

    Fernando Alonso - Copyright Formula 1

    But why on earth is Alonso doing it?

    The Spaniard's new ambition to chase alternative motor racing goals was born, of course, from depressing frustration at McLaren-Honda's failure to deliver him a competitive F1 car. For so long, he's been desperate to add a third world title to the pair he won for Renault way back in 2005-06. But as the years have slipped by in monotonous disappointment, Alonso has opened his eyes to the rich racing world around him.

    This man is super-bright and, against the common perception of F1 heroes, he genuinely loves motorsport – with the ability to see far beyond the privileged, blinkered world of the grand prix paddocks.

    I'd got an inkling there was more to him during his Ferrari years when he told my old friend Nigel Roebuck that he enthusiastically read our magazine, Motor Sport – and not just the bits about modern F1. But still, could I have predicted one of the most ambitious and ruthless F1 drivers in history would soon be vying to win classic races considered 'obscure' among the elite he mixes with in his day job? No way.

    But it's happening nevertheless, even though the Rolex doesn't form part of the unofficial 'Triple Crown' Alonso has set his heart on chasing.

    Only Graham Hill managed to clinch the magic trio – the F1 world championship, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Alonso has reasoned, quite logically, with Michael Schumacher's record seven F1 titles now out of his reach, his quest for legendary status lies in an ambition to show all-round ability: to win in a variety of machinery in a variety of racing disciplines, just like versatile legends such as Mario Andretti, Vic Elford and Stirling Moss.

    He was a genuine contender to add the Indy 500 to his collection last May, but as I was lucky enough to witness first-hand, was robbed by yet another blown Honda engine. He'll return to Indy one day to try again – because he'll have to if he wants that triple crown.

    Meanwhile, there's Le Mans, a race he has experienced as an enthusiastic visitor. We're all hooked to see if he'll be the magic ingredient Toyota craves to end its jinx at the great race next June – if he signs up as we all hope he will. His maiden test in Bahrain following the FIA World Endurance Championship season closer this autumn certainly whetted his appetite for LMP1 machinery, so fingers crossed.

    But Alonso in LMP2? Really?


    For me, this shows the man is serious about these extra-curricular activities. The United Autosports Ligier JSP217 is a great little car, but in performance terms this is a prototype designed for amateurs to handle as much as seasoned pros. It's hardly going to test him.

    But that's not the point. He's taking on Daytona as part of his preparation to build experience for Le Mans. He needs endurance miles and the Rolex is a prime opportunity to gain a load.

    Also, I suspect, he knows it'll be fun. And that's also the point of this diversion to Florida.

    United Autosports boss Zak Brown does, of course, have the more significant day job of steering the McLaren F1 team through their current trouble, and it's the American who's smashed the glass ceiling for Alonso's new-found ambitions. Brown is no stranger to Daytona and will have fed the Spaniard tall stories about just how great Florida can be at the end of January.

    He's right to, because it is.

    Back in 2011, Zak invited me out to a race I'd attended before, but this time to specifically write about his latest entry. He'd convinced F1 old boys and good mates Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell to race alongside him in a Daytona Prototype. The pair jumped at the chance of reliving past glories, for both had raced at the Florida speedbowl in the Group C/GTP era – in Brundle's case successfully so, as he won for Jaguar in 1988.

    I interviewed the pair before the race in United Autosport's motorhome, the ‘Brundell brothers' enjoying the bonhomie and banter. On Daytona, Martin stated categorically that "physically, it was the hardest race I ever did. The Jaguars were heavy, and I think it was particularly humid when we raced here with three drivers."

    Alonso will have been told such tales. He won't be expecting an easy time, even if the Ligier is no Jaguar XJR-12. But 24 hours on Daytona's mix of oval banking and infield road course should never be underestimated – even by a maestro.

    Especially as he'll be facing a competitive field full of sports car specialists, and a heady mix of Indycar and NASCAR heroes. So many turn out at Daytona to shake the winter cobwebs, to have some fun of their own – and also to try to win a Rolex… This race matters to so many for so many reasons.

    The Daytona Banking

    And that's why, as much as Alonso is a great story for the race and a gilt-edged reason to pay a visit next January, he's not the only reason why a trip to Daytona should be on everyone's motorsport bucket list.

    Daytona doesn't need a global superstar pitching up to be one of the best experiences in racing, from either the perspective of the cockpit or the grandstands.

    First of all, the place is huge, especially now the main stand has been expanded beyond its already colossal size. And without the mammoth crowds attracted by the more nationally famous NASCAR 500-miler that takes place a couple of weeks later, it's also spectator-friendly. Such is the size of the site, even if thousands do turn up, it never really feels like it.

    The spectacle on the banking, the sense of history, the accessible nature of US motorsport, an escape from frozen Europe in January… the Rolex 24 might not be included among the Triple Crown, but it's still special – it's an ‘event' like no other.

    For Alonso, the penny has dropped that F1 isn't the be-all and end-all. He's ready for new adventures, and Daytona offers an experience he will never forget – much as it will be for any visitor.

    Racing's North Turn, Daytona Beach, Florida

    One final tip if you're tempted (and you should be!): take a drive about 20 minutes south down the coast to the North Turn restaurant. This is the site of Daytona's first beach races that began way back in 1936, long preceding NASCAR's foundation and the building of the famous superspeedway in '59.

    Daytona's motorsport heritage was born on the beach, with land speed records broken on its sands when professional stock car racing was but a glint in the eye of founding father Bill France and its first aces were still running moonshine... The North Turn, with its fantastic photos and memorabilia, is a quiet little racing mecca – and the perfect coda to any Daytona trip.

    And after all we've seen in the past year, I wouldn't even be surprised if you bumped into a curious Spaniard checking it out for a bite of lunch… Stranger things have happened, and on this evidence, will again in 2018 and beyond. The adventure is just beginning.

    Damien Smith, former Editor of Motor Sport Magazine

    Image Formula 1 (Fernando Alonsa portrait)