Fernando Alonso took his seat in the Daytona International Speedway media center last Friday, smiled and looked up at the gathering crowd – competitors, news people, officials filled the room.
The two-time Formula One world champion was at the World Center of Racing over the weekend preparing for his inaugural start in the Rolex 24 At Daytona – the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opener and a racer’s resume must-do.
Despite only a few laps in the United Autosports No. 23 Ligier LMP2 before initially speaking with the crowd of reporters, the 36-year old Spaniard seemed enthusiastic, optimistic and genuinely happy to be there.
Far from the buttoned-up all-business F1 race weekend vibe, Alonso was clearly absorbing details of the busy, new setting and talking up the challenge he looks forward to undertaking in the Jan. 27-28 twice-around-the-clock race.
“I did unfortunately a short time, only three laps this morning, but enough to have a feeling in the car,’’ Alonso shared with a smile. “I don’t know the speedway as well, the corners with the high banking were … special.
“You feel the compression in the body, you feel the visibility change because when in a normal car on the circuit, your view in the car is longer ahead. When you are in the corner with banking you see only the next 200 meters of the track. But it was good fun, a good feeling after missing track time.
“So far, so good.’’
So good for all. Alonso’s presence in the race has garnered headlines and interest around the world. His impressive debut in the Indianapolis 500 last May – he led 27 laps early but retired with 21 laps remaining because of an engine problem – has already made Alonso a fan favorite in the United States. And his willingness to compete in yet another completely new form of racing in the Rolex 24 has only raised the level of intrigue and respect.
“I don’t remember a time in my tenure in sports car racing which goes back a long time that we’ve had an active F1 driver on the grid, and to have an active F1 driver of Alonso’s credentials. … is nothing short of remarkable,” said IMSA President Scott Atherton between testing sessions at the Roar Before the 24. “Of course, his debut at Indy last year cannot be overstated in terms of the impact it had.
“It created a groundswell of interest in the United States and overseas. … it will be significant and certainly with what this race represents and uniqueness of him competing in a multi-class race over 24 hours. The dynamics of that…. We all saw remarkable embrace of his ability to compete in highest level at the Indy 500 and I think we will see the same here.’’
Alonso, who in 2005 was the youngest world champion in F1 history (age 24 years, 58 days), was as impressed with the atmosphere in Daytona Beach last week as with what awaits him in the world-renowned race. He spoke about the people who seemed to be following his every move from paddock to pit to race car. And far from being annoyed at the attention, he seemed genuinely impressed by the scene, enthused by the fanfare. And that was three weeks before the Rolex 24 green flag.
He wondered aloud also what the scene must be for NASCAR’s Feb. 18 season-opening Daytona 500 on the track’s high banks. This particular race track, he understood, elicits great emotion and excitement hosting stock car’s highest profile event.
“Two days here, but you smell motor racing here,’’ Alonso noted of his first impression. “That’s a good feeling for any driver. The speedway is amazing. The size of everything is just huge. I imagine this grandstand full of people for the NASCAR race would be an amazing thing to experience.”
He reiterated that – for now – his Daytona 500 experience would be as a spectator, but the question of whether he might one day consider competing in NASCAR’s biggest race was inevitable.
“My thoughts at the moment are that NASCAR driving technique is very unique to those types of cars,’’ Alonso said. “I would need a lot of practice, a lot of testing before making that adventure. At the moment, I have enough weekends free for what I’m doing. No plans yet, but definitely after being here for the 24 hours, definitely I will watch the [Daytona 500] race on television at least and enjoy the race.’’
Alonso said he was hopeful to run more endurance races in the future, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and perhaps make another Indy 500 start – all timing based on his busy schedule with F1. And race fans across the globe couldn’t be more thrilled with the news of his career expansion.
First, however, will be this month’s Rolex 24 and judging the crowd reaction and Alonso’s own demeanor so far, it’s a toss-up who will be more excited to have him back in Daytona for the race.
“It’s more of the same goal as Indianapolis,’’ Alonso said of gauging his expectations in the Rolex 24. “I have the whole track to learn and different driving techniques. I try to learn from the specialists of endurance races and try to be a better driver when the 24 hours finishes. That’s the first thing.
“This is first time for me in an endurance race. First time for me in a prototype car. First time driving at night. First time driving with GTs around. Many new things will come. Step by step.
“That’s quite a big challenge but I’m ready to join and as it happened in Indianapolis if you feel great opportunity and you feel competitive, you go for it.”