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