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Plans for Alonso sports car debut in Rolex 24 gathering speed

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Plans for McLaren Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso to appear in next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona are gathering speed as the two-time World Champion angles for a drive at Le Mans in 2018.

Alonso announced on Thursday he had signed a new, multi-year deal to remain with McLaren in F1, but has left the door open to continue his pursuit of the Triple Crown of Motorsport and become just the second driver in history to complete it.

Alonso has won the Monaco Grand Prix twice and made his Indianapolis 500 debut this year, retiring with an engine issue, and has made no secret of his ambition to race at Le Mans one day.

With no date clashes, the possibility exists for Alonso to race at Le Mans in 2018, potentially with Toyota in the LMP1 class following McLaren’s split with Honda.

However, Alonso could make his 24-hour race debut five months earlier, with reports emerging on Thursday that he could be in line to appear in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

First reported by Sportscar365, Alonso could be set to race for McLaren executive director Zak Brown’s team, United Autosports, at Daytona in January, with no clashes existing with his F1 commitments.

Alonso remained coy when asked about the chances of him appearing at Daytona, but admitted additional preparation for a possible Le Mans appearance would be of interest.

“For the Indy 500 it was a nice experience, I felt very competitive but it was a big challenge that I took from zero, from no testing, not any similar race before it,” Alonso said, as quoted by Reuters.

“If I want to prepare Le Mans, maybe there are other possibilities to prepare Le Mans a little bit better than I prepared the Indy 500.”

He added more about his other race program in Thursday’s pre-race Paddock Pass episode, speaking to NBCSN. “To be the best driver in the world you have to win in different series at different times. It’s possible I can compete in different races next year,” he said.

Brown said he would be happy to field Alonso at Daytona, and confirmed their pair had already loosely discussed it.

“If Fernando wants to do Daytona and we have a seat available, we would put his name on it happily,” Brown said.

“We’ve started joking around about it, and we saw where jokes got us last time,” he added, referencing the eventual entry to the Indy 500.

United Autosports will field two Ligier JS P217 cars at Daytona in January, and has already confirmed ex-F1 racer Paul di Resta, McLaren junior Lando Norris, American endurance racer Will Owen and British youngster Philip Hanson in seats.

McLaren reserve and 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button had been linked with a drive for United Autosports at Daytona, but Brown confirmed to Sportscar365 this was no longer an option.

“Jenson won’t be driving for us. I don’t know what he’s going to be doing,” Brown said.

“I thought he was going to be in the Penske car. Not sure what happened there.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.