The start of the IMSA SportsCar championship comes as a welcome relief to motorsport fans feeling deprived following a quiet winter. The historic Daytona 24 Hours rarely fails to deliver competitive action and thrilling conclusions throughout the classes.
In 2018, the IMSA curtain raiser promises to attract even more eyeballs courtesy of an unprecedented invasion of talent from single-seater disciplines, all looking to test their mettle against sportscars elite names.
Two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso is no doubt the star attraction in this regard. Having tamed the mighty Indianapolis in May last year – challenging for victory in the Indy 500 on his first attempt before his Honda engine expired – Alonso’s Daytona experience will be his first competitive outing in sportscars.
Competing for Zak Brown’s United Autosports squad, Alonso will pilot one of the two Ligier JSP217 prototypes fielded by the team.
Given his Triple Crown aspirations, his Daytona outing with United Autosports is considered to be a precursor to an assault at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Competing in North America’s premier endurance race is unquestionably the best way to prepare for a Le Mans challenge, which at this point, is somewhat of an inevitability in Alonso’s future.
As if seeing one of the greatest F1 drivers of the modern era make his maiden voyage with a roof over his head is not tantalising enough, the team-mates he is to compete alongside will add another dose of intrigue.
European F3 champion and McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris will also make his first appearance in sportscars, and his first non-single-seater event since he claimed the title in the TOCA Ginetta Junior series back in 2014.
Norris is one of the hottest prospects in junior formula, having won the championship in each and every series he has participated in.
Given his herculean rise through the junior ranks, it will be fascinating to see how youth fares against experience in the same machinery. They may be team-mates in a setting where teamwork is imperative, but the competition to be the top driver within the team will inevitably be fierce.
“It is a good opportunity for me to learn from him [Alonso] and one I can’t let go to waste,” Norris said. “But at the same time I’d like to prove what I can do to him, especially in the qualifying runs.
“Daytona is a team event. We are not going against each other, but of course, I’d like to say it is going to be a bit of a competition over who will do a better job over the practice and qualifying runs.”
The third member of the F1-flavoured squad is the critical reference point by which to assess how well both Alonso and Norris have adapted to the demands of sportscar endurance racing. Phil Hanson is the reigning Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 champion and having partially competed in the 2017 European Le Mans Series driving the JSP217, he has a wealth of recent and relevant experience to call upon.
Alonso and Norris’ heightened profile is irrelevant. Hanson is likely to set the benchmark pace in the team and Alonso and Norris are likely to be chasing his times, at least to begin with.
If either can eclipse the pace of a team-mate who is set to complete a full programme of ELMS and run in the Le Mans 24 Hours with United Autosports in 2018, then it would be hugely impressive.
Elsewhere, a similar team dynamic will be present at Jackie Chan DC Racing Jota. 2017 F1 rookie Lance Stroll will compete alongside former Euro F3 mentor and Formula E race winner Felix Rosenqvist, with Dani Juncadella and Robin Frjins completing the line-up.
The sister ORECA 07 car features Antonio Felix da Costa, plus the man who very nearly conquered F3 at Macau, Ferdinand Habsburg. These single-seater talents will have their versatility compared to WEC LMP2 regulars Alex Brundle and Ho-Ping Tung, who will take up ‘The Hanson Role’ at Jota.
The Daytona 24 Hours may not have the heritage and prestige to equal the Indy 500, despite being very much owning its own place in motorsport history, but this year’s race will attract new audiences to the race.
Much like Alonso’s Indy adventure, the line-up at this year’s event reflects more than ever a blurring of the lines between motorsport disciplines. No longer does the event simply appeal to WEC drivers and IndyCar stars looking for a project with which to fill the off-season. Drivers based in Europe are now more open to taking on challenges outside both their comfort zone and their home continent.
Categories such as IMSA win thanks to greater exposure and audiences. Drivers are able to drive more cars more often and enhance their careers. Fans are treated to greater opportunities to witness their favourite drivers in action and enjoy rivalries and, conversely, co-operation within a team that would otherwise be impossible to cultivate.
May the opportunities for drivers to compete in multi-disciplines over the course of a calendar year continue.