When Alonso and Norris almost tasted success together

The forthcoming Daytona 24 Hours features a plethora of ex-F1 stars who have all made the transition to endurance racing.  

Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean are just a few names in this year’s 24-hour race, which takes place at the prestigious Daytona Speedway as part of America’s IMSA SportsCar Championship on the 27-28 January.  

However, it is far from the first time F1 stars have driven Daytona. Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin Brundle are previous Daytona winners, while 2018 was certainly an all-star lineup as double F1 world champion Fernando Alonso teamed up with Zak Brown’s United Autosports. 

Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Zak Brown, United Autosports

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Zak Brown, United Autosports

It was part of Alonso’s “quest to win Le Mans”. The Spaniard was falling out of love with F1, as his McLaren team had just finished next to bottom in the 2017 championship and Alonso was intent on returning to the top step in any way he could. 

His eyes were firmly on claiming the illustrious Triple Crown of Motorsport – awarded for winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours and a feat which has only been achieved by Graham Hill – but Alonso’s first attempt at completing two-thirds of that goal was an unsuccessful trip to the Brickyard where he retired from the 2017 Indy 500.  

Nevertheless, Le Mans was next on his radar and Alonso, already a Monaco GP winner, saw Daytona as a great way to prepare for what was to come in 2018. 

“We were in Singapore,” said McLaren CEO Brown in 2017, “got our F1 deal done, and as soon as we mentally crossed the bridge of getting that sealed, it wasn’t two minutes later before he said, ‘I wanna do Daytona’. 

“As Fernando does, he kinda chats about things, doesn’t really tell you what he’s thinking, and then out of the blue he goes: ‘I wanna do it’. That is exactly what happened”.

Fernando Alonso, United Autosports

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Fernando Alonso, United Autosports

The race partnered the old guard and the upcoming. Alonso shared his Ligier LMP2 with Lando Norris who, by this point, had established himself as McLaren’s ‘golden boy’ as the then 18-year-old had just been announced as McLaren’s reserve driver after claiming the Formula 3 European Championship crown in his maiden full-time season. 

“You can’t help seeing how Lando comes on,” said Brown. “He and Fernando get along really well so more than anything, it will be a great opportunity for them to bond and continue to build their relationship. 

“Lando is going to learn from Fernando, how he conducts himself and how he prepares for a race. It’ll be very beneficial for Lando.”

The pair were joined by endurance racer Phil Hanson, however heading into Daytona victory was never really a possibility. The Ligier JS P217 held a significant pace deficit to other DPI runners, which was evident in qualifying with the trio only quick enough for 13th and around one second off the pole time. 

But, things got better at the race start. 

#23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2: Phil Hanson, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, #32 United Autosports Ligier LMP2: Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Bruno Senna, Paul di Resta

Photo by: United Autosports

#23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2: Phil Hanson, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, #32 United Autosports Ligier LMP2: Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Bruno Senna, Paul di Resta

Alonso displayed his world champion capabilities by gaining two positions in the opening five minutes, despite it being his debut in closed cockpit racing. With Alonso firmly holding his own, United Autosports were close to the top five when his stint finished.

Next up was Norris, who was about to show the motorsport world what he could do. 

The Briton quickly reduced the deficit to cars ahead before a heavy rain shower suddenly hit as the sun began to drop. However, it is well known that tricky conditions are where the elite drivers shine – and that day, it was Norris. 

He was the fastest driver on a wet track, thus masking the deficiency of his Ligier where Norris helped the #23 car lead for a total of eight laps as varying pitstop strategies played out at the front.

“I didn’t know what position I was in; it was only when I came into the pits, I saw I was P1,” said Norris post-race. 

“On my final lap [in the eighth hour] before I boxed, I overtook my team-mate [the #32 Ligier], who I thought was ahead of me, and I could swear he had the [number] eight [on the digital readout that shows current position] on the car. But when I entered the pits, I saw I was P1.” 

#23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2, P: Phil Hanson, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, pit stop

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

#23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2, P: Phil Hanson, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, pit stop

And it was a stint that massively impressed Alonso, who was arguably outshone by the youngster that day.  

“The stints he did were very impressive – the teamwork, the preparation, the focus,” said Alonso, who won the Daytona 24 Hours a year later.

“So even in wet conditions, [on his] first time in a prototype car, at Daytona, on Continental tyres, he recovered 33 seconds in 20 laps, something like that. He is 18-years-old, so that’s quite impressive.” 

But it was after Norris’ stint that it all went suddenly wrong for the #23 car. 

Hanson sustained a puncture in the third stint, which was followed by brake problems for Alonso where United Autosports then took around 40 minutes to replace the brake master cylinder. It caused the team to rapidly drop down the order and when it was time for Norris’ next stint, the car was 26 laps behind the leaders and 22nd in the overall classification. 

It was something the team struggled to come back from as it eventually finished 13th in class and 38th overall, but the driving on display could not have been much better and it was a day Norris simply rued the bad luck. 

“Our pace in the whole race was pretty good in terms of our disadvantage of actual pace in the car,” said Norris. 

“Compared to the Cadillacs and the Acuras, they were miles better in terms of performance. But me, Phil and Fernando did a great job extracting what we could from the car. 

“I think we have to be proud of what we achieved as drivers and of the team; the failures are just things that sometimes happen.”

Fernando Alonso, United Autosports

Photo by: United Autosports

Fernando Alonso, United Autosports

They weren’t the only F1 drivers competing that weekend either.  

Lance Stroll, who had just completed his rookie season with Williams, was in the Oreca 07 for Jackie Chan DCR Jota sharing his car with then Formula E’s Felix Rosenqvist, DTM veteran Daniel Juncadella and ex-Caterham reserve driver Robin Frijns. 

The team had a more competitive car than the United Autosports trio, as Frijns led them to sixth in qualifying before finishing an overall 15th – 11th in the top class – in Stroll’s second attempt at Daytona.  

Things did not really improve for Stroll either, as he later finished 18th in the 2018 F1 standings scoring just six points for Williams. Alonso also struggled as, although McLaren had improved from 2017, it was still not a very competitive outfit which led to the world champion finishing 11th in the drivers’ standings. 

However, his biggest goal for that year was to close in on the motorsport triple crown and, although victory at the Indy 500 still eludes him, Alonso completed two-thirds of the feat by winning the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours before clinching the 2018-19 World Endurance Championship title with Toyota. 

Alonso returned to Daytona the following year, winning the 24 Hours with Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande and former Sauber F1 racer Kamui Kobayashi in Wayne Taylor Racing’s Cadillac.

So, Alonso still tasted success but his time in F1 came to a temporary end, as he left the series for two years at the end of 2018. 

Norris was his replacement. Following Daytona, the Briton had an upbeat 2018 as he finished runner-up to George Russell in the Formula 2 standings, which resulted in a full-time F1 race seat with McLaren where Carlos Sainz was to be his team-mate.

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