By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Fernando Alonso’s first Rolex 24 at Daytona will begin from the middle of the grid after a mediocre qualifying effort.
Alonso was 13th out of 17 prototype entries in Thursday’s qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway. The United Autosports entry was behind most of the day after a morning crash by co-driver Phil Hanson damaged the Ligier LMP2.
Long before qualifying began, team owner Zak Brown cautioned that his two entries are longshots to win the prestigious sports car event this weekend — even with two-time Formula One champion Alonso behind the wheel.
United Autosports is fielding one Ligier with Alonso, Hanson and McLaren F1 reserve driver Lando Norris, and a second entry with Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Paul Di Resta and Bruno Senna.
“We are running two equal cars. I know when you have Fernando in a car, everything else becomes kind of secondary,” said Brown, Alonso’s F1 boss at McLaren. “I think this is going to be the most exciting 24 ever. I think this is going to be closest field. I think on ultimate pace, we will be a little off, but it’s a long race and I am hoping we will be top-five. If it’s a messy race for others, maybe a podium, but I’d be surprised if we are going away with any watches come Sunday.”
Brown juggles running United Autosport, the team he owns, with his job running one of the most storied teams in F1. He first announced the No. 32 Ligier entry for Daytona with Owen as the anchor driver, and joked that “eight-and-a-half minutes” after Alonso finalized his 2018 McLaren deal, he was asking Brown about running the Rolex.
A second team was formed around Alonso, who also ran last year’s Indianapolis 500 with assistance from Brown in getting the Spaniard a deal. Alonso is trying to cross all the top races in the world off his bucket list, and after the twice-round-the-clock endurance race that begins Saturday, Alonso will next try to put together a ride for the 24 Hours of Le Mans either this year or next.
The Rolex will be Alonso’s first time racing at night, first time racing in a closed cockpit and first time competing in a major sports car event. It’s not clear yet if he’ll bring the same attention to the Rolex that he did last May to Indianapolis, where he was in contention for the victory until his engine failed with 21 laps remaining.
The Cadillac teams have so far shown to be the strongest entries in the prototype class, even after IMSA dialed back rules to try to even the field. Roger Penske is back in sports cars this year with a strong Acura program, and so much attention has been placed on reliability, that speed and flawless team performance will be key during the event.
“You used to be able to get to the front on other people’s misfortune, I think this is now a 24-hour sprint race and I don’t think we have the ultimate sprint pace,” Brown said. “Fernando wants to get the experience.”
Alonso indeed wants something to show for this effort when the race ends Sunday, and he’s kept his sense of humor in the lead-up. IMSA brought him to North Carolina earlier this week to NASCAR’s media tour to help promote the Rolex, and he spent time at the event visiting with seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
He played coy on whether he would qualify for the car or start the race — it was Brown who confirmed Alonso will qualify the car — and openly laughed when asked Thursday whether he was nervous about being woken up in the middle of the night and asked to perform regarding his upcoming stint during the overnight hours of a race.
“It will be the first time. I will tell you the following morning. I will see how I can perform at that time of the day,” Alonso said.
He then added he’s eager for every aspect of this race.
“I spoke with the guys about how excited I am for the race,” he said. “I did some go-kart 24 hour races, at amateur level, so this is the first time for me at his level. We are not as competitive as we’d like, but nevertheless we will try to execute the race perfectly and if that happens, we can achieve a good result.”