Fernando Alonso’s romance with American racing will continue in January when the two-time Formula 1 World Champion lands in Florida to participate in his first Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Coming off his starring role in May’s 101st Indianapolis 500, the Spaniard will tick the second box on his racing bucket list as part of United Autosports’ squad in IMSA’s Prototype category for the season-opening WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance event .
United Autosports, owned by Alonso’s McLaren boss Zak Brown, will field a pair of LMP2 prototypes sourced from the leading French manufacturer Ligier, and both will be powered by a spec 4.5-liter V8 built by Gibson Technologies in England. It will mark the Spaniard’s first 24-hour sports car race, and add to the long-lost tradition of F1 drivers competing at the legendary Daytona event prior to the start of the grand prix season. After Daytona, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is among the other world famous venues Alonso has targeted in the twilight of his career.
The McLaren driver will make his Daytona debut at the Jan. 5-7 Roar Before The 24 test with UA, and return a few weeks later for the Jan 25-28 race where will be joined by former F1 driver Paul Di Resta, young Texan Will Owen, and others on the extended UA roster.
The signing of Alonso for a one-off race with the team privately owned by Brown represents an interesting change in strategy. When the Alonso-to-Daytona rumors began to circulate in August, I asked Brown if the conjecture had any merit.
“I’ve heard those same rumors, but I like to keep business between McLaren and my own team separate,” he said. It’s possible that with Alonso on the open market at the time in F1, Brown did not want to finalize a Daytona deal until the 36-year-old put pen to paper on a new McLaren contract for 2018.
One of the other big stars of the upcoming Rolex 24 At Daytona can’t wait to have his friend in the field.
“It would be great for IMSA and great for the sport,” Acura Team Penske DPi driver Juan Montoya told RoadandTrack.com. “We already have Acura, Roger Penske, Helio, myself, and other guys coming to the race, and it would be huge for the prestige if Fernando’s there.”
The two-time Indy 500 winner, who raced against Alonso in F1 and again during his IndyCar debut with Andretti Autosport at the Speedway, is confident the IMSA and United Autosport will feel the kind of love Team Penske received earlier this month at Petit Le Mans where Castroneves, Montoya, and Simon Pagenaud were mobbed by fans throughout the event.
“I think it will be cool, and you can already see the draw at Road Atlanta with Team Penske coming back and all the fans that were really interested to see how we’d do,” he said. “With Fernando, it would be more good momentum for the series.”
IMSA president Scott Atherton, in recognizing the influx of open-wheel talent headed to the series, acknowledged the special times ahead for North American sports car diehards.
“For many years in endurance sports car racing the cars have been the stars,” he said. “And while that may be true we have also always had drivers with world-class skills and powerful, attractive personalities. However, the most recent additions to our driver ranks provide us with true ‘household names’ – an unprecedented situation for IMSA. We’re look forward to working with all our drivers to continue growing our audiences at-track and on TV.”
Update: Alonso was confirmed for the seat on 10/26:
The confirmation of Fernando Alonso’s late January date with the Rolex 24 At Daytona has been met with joy on both sides of the Atlantic.
“We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Fernando Alonso to IMSA competition in the Rolex 24 At Daytona,” said IMSA President Scott Atherton. “It’s not possible to overstate the significance of this news. There is no question that with his Formula 1 experience and how competitive he was at the Indianapolis 500, he will be an immediate contender for the Rolex 24 victory.”
The Spaniard’s first-time appearance at the legendary endurance event will come as part of the United Autosports Ligier JS P217-Gibson Prototype effort [LINK].
“What an exciting and interesting project,” said the McLaren Formula 1 driver. “Learning about a completely new racing category, adapting to a different car and to another style of driving and everything that goes with it, is a new challenge for me and I can’t wait to test myself again as a driver. The Daytona 24 Hours is the most iconic US endurance race and one of the world’s great races. Everyone knows it. It’s not part of the Triple Crown but, as I have always said, my aim is to be a complete driver and this experience will help me in the preparation for any other endurance race I might take part in. Before I went to Indy, I had never driven on an oval, now I know what an oval is and how to deal with it. I am excited to go back and race in America. After the great time I had during the month of May for the Indy 500, I am looking forward to taking part in another legendary race that will bring back all those amazing sensations that US fans gave me. Also, this race happens at a convenient time, in January, when our F1 season is off and we are mainly working on our physical preparation. It will be good to get behind a wheel again! Thanks to United Autosports for having offered me this opportunity and thanks to McLaren for supporting me in this new exciting adventure.”
Daytona International Speedway president Chip Wile also jumped in on the Fernando Alonso news.
“The Rolex 24 At Daytona is North America’s most prestigious sports car race and the kick-off event to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season,” he said. “Over the years, champion drivers from various racing disciplines such as NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 have competed against the world’s best sports car racers in the Rolex 24, including most recently three-time Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon. Daytona International Speedway welcomes the participation of two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso in one of sports cars’ most demanding and iconic events – the Rolex 24.”