Here's a bit more on it from Motorsport Mag.
The draw of Daytona
by Jack Phillips on 5th January 2018
Fernando Alonso will gain invaluable experience at the Daytona 24 Hours, and his isn't the only storyline to follow in the fascinating US motor sport season opener
January. Not the most interesting of months in motor racing, by any stretch. But there's salvation coming from America as the prototype season begins at Daytona, and Dubai hosts its annual twice-round-the-clock GT race to open the Hankook 24H series.
It hardly needs saying that this is going to be a fascinating season for sports cars. The World Endurance Championship has recovered from a brace of heavy blows in the past few seasons and found itself with a healthy and competitive privateer LMP1 category. Although, it's hard to look past Toyota for victories – especially at Le Mans, finally putting the hoodoo to rest.
Despite that, one man may steal headlines, bring added intrigue and take the spotlight away from everyone else. Starting at Daytona. That man is Fernando Alonso.
With United Autosports, the team run by his open-minded boss Zak Brown, Alonso is to make his long-awaited 24-hour race debut at Daytona. In doing so, IMSA is cresting whatever's left of the wave of anticipation that began when Alonso dropped the flag on the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours. Then a tantalising sign-off during a WEC retirement video to Mark Webber that said: “You didn’t wait for me there, it would have been nice but you’ll still be around and I will ask you many things when I join your adventure” only heightened the anticipation.
'Alonso’s going to Le Mans', everyone thought.
Then he went and did the Indy 500. All that hard work by the WEC and ACO, all that anticipation built, only for IndyCar to reap the benefit. And IMSA now gets its own slice of Alonso fever.
Le Mans must wait, still.
It could well happen this year, of course. But Toyota has been quoted as saying it will retain its existing line-up for 2018, and a third car is probably unlikely for a company that pays for its racing exploits from its road car research and development budget. The case for a third car is a difficult case to make when you’re racing against no other manufacturers. So one factory driver must drop out; news on that front could arrive this month.
How Alonso will fare at Daytona this month is difficult to say. He's not in the most competitive of cars, a Ligier against the factory-lite prototypes of IMSA’s clever DPi category – DPis won all 10 of 2017’s races. Experience in the car is limited, to say the least: he's partnering Brown’s rising star protégé and McLaren reserve Lando Norris and Phil Hanson, both teenagers.
Norris is going to be on his biggest stage yet while making his sports car debut. He may well shine under bright lights of the Speedway and propel his stock even higher. He certainly won't be overawed, he's proven his speed time and again, and he has Alonso to cover him from further attention. The pressure is off him.
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Alonso, meanwhile, has the chance to put himself up against some very good prototype racers without the pressure of Le Mans. He'll get a taste of what it takes to both race as part of a team, race through the night, and deal with slower traffic – having spent the season being the slower traffic. Multi-class racing doesn't come easily, though, and he'll have unpredictable amateurs to factor in, too.
Hanson has learned his craft thus far in sports cars. A part-season of LMP2 in WEC and the ELMS was followed up by an Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 title. It's a big chance for Hanson to make himself a name, but the pressure is certainly off him, too.
There’s more than just Alonso at Daytona, mind. This year also sees Joest and Penske back on the same grid, but instead of Audi vs Porsche RS Spyder it's Mazda DPi vs Acura DPi: two heavyweight teams, with a lot to do to just get to the front. The acquisition of Ricky Taylor by Penske has had the added benefit of hampering rival and reigning champion Wayne Taylor Racing. The names alongside Taylor’s on the Penske garage are impressive: Juan Pablo Montoya, Hélio Castroneves and Dane Cameron are the full-season drivers, joined by Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal for the Endurance Cup races (Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit).
Joest has chosen a similarly fearsome line-up, adding ex-Audi man Olly Jarvis and Ford racer and Le Mans class winner Harry Tincknell to Mazda regulars Jonathan Bomarito and Tristan Nunez. René Rast will join for the enduro, and will be fast, so too Spencer Pigot.
Elsewhere on the grid, Lance Stroll returns and will share a Jackie Chan DC Racing P2 Oreca with Dani Juncadella, Felix Rosenqvist and Robin Frijns. The sister car will host Alex Brundle and Ho-Pin Tung and debutants António Félix da Costa and Ferdinand Habsburg. The rising stars quartets may be overshadowed by Alonso, but they will be fascinating to watch.
IMSA is on a good run from recent seasons, it's turned itself into a healthy and strong category with a well-judged formula. Manufacturers have been attracted, not least in GTLM with Ford, Corvette, Porsche and BMW. Risi Competizione provides a strong factory-backed Ferrari, piloted by Toni Vilander, James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi, no less. Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy re-join forces at Porsche, with added Frederic Makowiecki. And in the sister car? Laurens Vanthoor alongside Earl Bamber, with Gianmaria Bruni for the enduros.
And then there’s GTD – GT3 to the rest of the world *– filling out the remaining grid slots and producing excellent racing. As is its wont.
The season’s getting off to a flier.
The one thing IMSA is missing – and deserves – is viewers, to a certain extent. Alonso could be a catalyst to help provide just that, and later add a few more numbers on the gate at Le Mans.