United Autosports

  • 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.

  • 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)