By Holly Cain, IMSA Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One by one, they took a seat smiling. Wayne Taylor Racing’s all-star driver lineup in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R stopped by the Daytona International Speedway media center three weeks ago for a highly anticipated interview session ready to reinforce to reporters at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 practice sessions of the high expectations they carry into this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona race.
Taylor, the team’s namesake, owner and himself a former winner of this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opening race, sat proudly alongside his son Jordan – a two-time IMSA champion – full-time team co-driver Renger van der Zande, and Rolex-only drivers two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and FIA World Endurance Championship standout Kamui Kobayashi. It’s an all-star driver lineup with fantastic reason to give Taylor confidence and optimism for the weekend’s race.
Handling high expectations may be as important as anything else and that’s a good problem to have.
Their No. 10 Cadillac DPi operation is as top-shelf as it gets in the Rolex 24. For five years – between 2012-2017 – Taylor’s car finished on the podium. In 2017, it won overall, earning NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon – another high-profile co-driver – his first Rolex victory. A year earlier, former F1 driver Rubens Barrichello co-drove with the team for a runner-up finish overall.
“At this point, we’re optimistic,’’ said Jordan Taylor. “From a car point of view, we made a lot of progress with some changes. It was also good to get Alonso and Kobayashi through the car to get them comfortable driving-wise and seat-wise and ergonomics.”
And, he confirmed, “They bring so much experience and information from what they’ve done in Formula 1 and WEC and in Japan to help us learn, and hopefully we’ll be ahead of the curve all through race weekend.’’
This is the second Rolex 24 for Alonso, who drove last year in an LMP2 car for United Autosports and briefly led overall in the race. That team ultimately finished 38th overall, but Alonso was pleased with the orientation lesson and is ready to improve on the result this week.
“I definitely feel I am in a much better position this year compared to last year,’’ said Alonso, who stepped away from F1 at the conclusion of the 2018 season. “Last year, this was my first U.S. sports car race and my first closed-cockpit experience and definitely this year, I’m ready to enjoy it a bit more and use the experience of my first WEC season as well.
“Everything is much more open than racing in Europe. The target this year is definitely to be more competitive on the track and I’m happy. I’m sure that with the Konica Minolta Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing, we can be in that position.”
The atmosphere of the twice-around-the-clock event – with a full international slate of racers, dramatic turns of fate and a vivid full-on embrace from a crowded Daytona International Speedway – is something the 2005-06 F1 champion Alonso said he immediately became fond of.
The racing venue provides carnival-like appeal for the young and the old – with a Ferris wheel in the infield, impressive manufacturer displays filling up the midway, vast memorabilia sales and genuinely exciting, suspenseful racing even in a test of endurance. The 47-car field this week is absolutely filled with the biggest names in racing – the starting grid a Who’s Who for any race fan.
“There were a lot of good moments last year and already this year with a couple kids that were even jumping in the car at one point,’’ Alonso said recalling the reception with a smile. “They get really close to the teams, to the drivers, to the cars. They can even touch the car if they want.
“It’s just something unthinkable in Formula 1 or racing in Europe, so I think that’s the nice part of this atmosphere and this race. I know it will be even bigger with all the fans here and how close they are on pit lane as well. When you jump in the car, you’re still signing autographs and taking pictures even with the helmet on, waiting for the car to come to pit lane – sometimes you need to tell them you are in a critical moment and you should be ready to jump in.
“But at same time if you embrace that and enjoy that, it is a very nice event and very nice emotion to see all the passion from the fans when they see the cars.’’
Beyond the feel-good moments, this Wayne Taylor team is once again considered among the legitimate favorites to earn Rolex watches in the winner’s circle come Sunday. They finished third in the 2018 season championship by a mere seven points, concluding the schedule with a dramatic final-minute victory in the famed Motul Petit Le Mans 10-hour race at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. And van der Zande – who drove that final stint at Petit Le Mans – concedes he was almost immediately ready to leave that victory lane and start preparing for the Rolex 24.
“I’m happy to go racing and happy to be back in the car,’’ van der Zande said with a grin. “For sure, Wayne has brought us some incredible things to this team, including the pair of drivers who will be joining us.
“Overall I’m excited about our chances. We have Fernando Alonso and he’s a legend. You can feel that in everything he does. Heading to Daytona with him and also Kamui as a teammate, I think is very special.’’
Qualifying for the Rolex 24 At Daytona is scheduled for Thursday and will be televised live on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET with final practice on Friday. NBCSN kicks off its race telecast at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Live IMSA Radio coverage throughout the week will be available on IMSA.com and RadioLeMans.com, with race coverage also available through both online outlets as well as SiriusXM Radio.
Tickets for the Rolex 24 At Daytona are available for purchase at DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com.