By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
The 56th edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona was rough on those from Formula 1.
Although Fernando Alonso had everyone’s attention during his stints in the No. 23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2 early on, it was Lance Stroll that put up the best result among F1 regulars.
The 19-year-old Canadian finished 15th overall and 11th among prototypes in the No. 37 Jackie Chan DCR JOTA ORECA LMP2, which endured a frequent number of right rear tire failures throughout the endurance classic. Stroll, who teamed with Felix Rosenqvist, Robin Frijns and Daniel Juncadella, completed 777 laps in a race that saw an overall – and record – 808 laps set by the winning trio of Felipe Albuquerque, Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Action Express Cadillac Dpi.
For Alonso, the chance to pull a one-off at the Rolex 24 cars came with the help of McLaren boss Zak Brown, who founded United Autosports in 2009. The 36-year-old Spaniard – joined by Phil Hanson and McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris – looked stout early on and in contention for a potential podium. However, reliability became their undoing as brake issues showed themselves into the night and frequently harassed the squad’s debut throughout the remaining hours.
After completing 718 laps and finishing a horrendous 38th, one bright spot came with Norris setting the team’s fastest lap during ever-changing conditions on Saturday night.
Overall, it was a different aspect of teamwork that Alonso experienced.
“It was amazing teamwork,” said Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 champion.
“First with United Autosports, the package maybe was not as competitive as some other package out there. But we were, as I said before, very fast in the race. We were probably easy on the podium.
Alonso went further to broadcast appreciation for the members of team, along with fellow driver Norris.
“The mechanics, we had too many issues in the race, but they kept focus and they kept motivated all the race long. That was a good example of teamwork and dedication.
“And about my teammates, really maybe it’s not a surprise, but for the people that don’t know Lando, it will be a surprise for them. The things he did were very impressive. The teamwork, the preparation, the focus.
“I think at night we will check when we switch to wet tires that there was only one stint, we were fifth, one minute behind the leader. And then we switched to slick tires, again on damp conditions, Lando driving and we were 27 seconds behind the leader.
“So even wet conditions, first time, in a prototype car, first time in Daytona, first time with Continental tires, he recovered 33 seconds in 20 laps or something like that. So he’s 18 years old. So that’s quite impressive.”
The biggest takeaway for Alonso was that North America’s most iconic endurance race elevated his preparation to potentially take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
“This makes me more prepared, that’s for sure,” said Alonso. “As I said, I experienced things the whole event that was new for me, and next time I jump in a prototype car, closed cockpit, I know what is the feeling.
“I know the traffic situations. I know the night driving. I know safety cars. I know things now that I didn’t know yesterday, 24 hours ago.
“So that’s one of the goals for this event. And then I think it’s not that I was concerned but we were not fast. We were the fastest this year, we were the fastest in our team. So that always gives you confidence.
“But as I said, what I saw and what I felt in the race being faster than the other prototypes, that was a huge boost of confidence. So now I think I can drive prototype cars at a higher level than two weeks ago. So that’s good.”