Speed Chills - Zac Brown

  • 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?

    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

    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)