Damien Smith

  • Seven magnificent reasons why we’re excited about 2018

    On the face of it, the consecutive losses in the past year of both Audi and then Porsche from the LMP1 ranks have dealt hefty blows to the world of sports car racing, worthy of an Anthony Joshua right hook.

    But have the Le Mans 24 Hours and the FIA World Endurance Championship crumpled to the canvas, out for the count in their wake? Of course not.

    In fact, the jewel of long-distance sports car racing and its associated series have weathered the double blow remarkably well, and as we power on towards the brightening horizon of 2018 both appear decidedly spritely. Motor racing’s ability to sniff the smelling salts, rejuvenate and punch back stronger than ever never ceases to amaze.

    Le Mans in particular has always proven bigger than any single manufacturer, throughout its illustrious 95-year history. So as we settle into the brief seasonal hibernation induced by the heady mix of minced pies and mulled wine, let’s ponder exactly what will get our juices running again in 2018 as a new era dawns for the greatest motor race in the world.

    1. LMP1 takes a leaf from Mark Twain’s book

    Sure, as the last manufacturer standing with a hybrid thoroughbred, Toyota will never have a greater chance to end its infamous Le Mans jinx – with or without Fernando Alonso – running an updated version of its TS050 HYBRID.

    Toyota TS050 Hybrid 2017

    But with only two entries expected from the Japanese giant, even now nothing can be taken for granted. As Toyota knows only too well from recent (bitter) experience, the first competitor any manufacturer at Le Mans has to conquer is the race itself. Even with an apparent open goal, the capacity to balloon it over the bar once again, either through technical failures or driver mistakes, will be all too real for this team come June 16/17.

    2. There’s Rebellion in the ranks…

    Fresh from WEC title success in the super-competitive LMP2 arena, top prototype privateer Rebellion Racing has confirmed its return to the top category for 2018 with a two-car entry bristling with promise.

    And with the new rules designed to equalise performance between factory hybrid and privateer non-hybrid power, the Anglo-Swiss squad will carry genuine hope into the new year that its new contender will have the capacity to carry the fight to Toyota. Whether that’s realistic or not remains to be seen.

    The new car, said to be another creation from seasoned partner ORECA, will be revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in March. Meanwhile, a superstar line-up of drivers has already been confirmed.

    Porsche LMP1 refugees Andre Lotter and Neel Jani have been named among the six, which also includes Bruno Senna – nephew of Ayrton – and talented youngster Thomas Laurent, who has controversially switched from the rival DC Racing LMP2 squad that came so close to sensationally winning the race overall last June.

    Rebellion is a seriously good racing team. Toyota will not underestimate its challenge.

    3. Privateers on parade: the new arrivals

    Along with Rebellion, the promise of greater LMP1 competition between manufacturer might and privateer pluck has enticed optimistic new projects into the top class, and one in particular looks certain to give the hordes of British Le Mans disciples a new focus come June.

    Successful LMP2 chassis builder Ginetta has accepted the challenge with an exciting all-new design set to be revealed at the Autosport International show at Birmingham’s NEC in January. The company has linked up with former F1 entrant Manor Racing for what promises to be a potent challenge.

    Then there’s SMP Racing’s new Dallara-built LMP1, dubbed the BR1, which was unveiled at the Bahrain WEC season finale in November. Run by top GP2/F2 team ART Grand Prix, with former Renault F1 ace Vitaly Petrov among the drivers, this is another serious effort with long-term potential.

    Fingers will be firmly crossed among sports car racing’s rule-makers that this revived interest in LMP1, fueled by ‘realistic’ budgets, will reap rewards for the privately funded entrants who have made the commitment. The silver lining of Audi and Porsche’s withdrawal glistens with genuine hope.

    4. GTE: who needs prototypes?

    Even if LMP1 does fall flat at Le Mans in June, the intensity of what will be happening behind them in the GTE ‘supercar’ class will more than compensate. Manufacturer interest has shot through the roof, and in a certain respect, it’s just a pity the influx of contenders aren’t competing for the overall win…

    That’s a debate for another day. For now, what matters is that the ‘race within a race’ at Le Mans promises serious bragging rights for some of the biggest and most famous motoring brands in the world.

    5. The Porsche factor: Mark Twain still relevant!

    Yes, I’m borrowing that cliché once more: the number one Le Mans manufacturer’s demise at the 24 Hours has been greatly exaggerated, despite that headline LMP1 withdrawal. That’s because Porsche has now doubled its efforts to conquer the GTE class, following its hat trick of overall wins between 2015-17.

    Regular GT aces Richard Lietz, Frederic Makowiecki and Gianmaria Bruni, who will make his first start for Porsche at Le Mans following his defection from Ferrari, are all confirmed. But also expect to see former LMP1 stars Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas in action. That’s quite a squad to keep the winning run going, albeit in the lower class.

    6. German flavour remains potent

    As Porsche shows a renewed commitment to GT racing, so too do two other German automotive giants. For the first time since 2011, BMW is returning to Le Mans with an all-new GTE contender, while Mercedes will also be represented – even if it’s in disguise.

    Aston Martin will keep the British end up once again, with its fantastic-looking new Vantage set to defend the hard-fought victory of 2017. But the German link is under the hood: an AMG Mercedes twin turbo now powers Aston’s front-engined GTE contender, following the engineering tie-up between two brands.

    Aston Martin Vantage LM-GTE 2018

    Add in an unchanged Ford line-up, Ferrari coming off the back of WEC title success and a continued challenge from Corvette, and GTE offers potentially one of the strongest manufacturer entries in Le Mans history. The battle between Ferrari vs Porsche vs Aston Martin vs Corvette vs Ford vs BMW… take a breath… will be simply immense.

    Who needs LMP1?

    7. Super-sized season with a double helping of Le Mans

    All this is then set in the context of the WEC’s new-era ‘Super Season’ calendar. For the first time in the series’ history, the WEC will carry over into a second calendar year – allowing two consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours to count towards one world title campaign. Intriguing.

    The marathon season kicks off in May with the Spa 6 Hours, before the teams take in the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours in June. The next six-hour round follows at Silverstone, now running in spectator-friendly August (we hope!) rather than at wet and windy Easter, before the calendar year concludes with races at Fuji and Shanghai.

    FIA WEC 2018-19 Super Season Calendar

    Then in 2019 the ‘super season’ picks up once more in March, with an exciting new 1500-mile round at Sebring in Florida, taking place the day after IMSA’s blue-riband 12 Hours. The weekend of action creates a fantastic double-header that looks certain to become a new and hugely popular sports car racing tradition.

    Following Sebring, the teams return to Spa for another 6 Hours, before the series hits its climax at the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours. That establishment of a new rhythm to the sports car racing season, with the series ending at its most famous race, should hopefully boost the profile of the WEC – and in the future will offer a season shape that mimics that of football. It makes sense.

    So there you have it. Far from hand-wringing at a weakened LMP1 entry, sports car racing fans can look forward to fresh beginnings in 2018 – and Le Mans will be as unmissable as ever.

    Care to join us?

    In the meantime, have a very merry Christmas and here’s to a flat-out new year.

    Damien Smith, former Editor of Motor Sport Magazine

  • 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, 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)