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Alonso’s amazing American adventure now set for Rolex 24

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Indianapolis had its taste of Fernando-mania this May. Daytona will get to devour it next January.

One star set to feature among many in the 2018 edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s kickoff event and one of its marquee endurance races, is two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso.

Alonso’s recently rumored attempt at the Rolex 24 at Daytona became officially official on Thursday, and with it came the next line of questions about how he and United Autosports assembled the package deal that will see him in one of its Ligier JS P217 Gibsons for the January endurance classic.

“Once we completed the McLaren deal, I approached Zak. I was interested in this race,” Alonso said Thursday.

“I had a very good friend of mine, Antonio Garcia, who races with Chevrolet for many years. I think he’s the champion this year of the GT category (in IMSA). So I was interested.

“I knew that Zak (Brown) had a seat still open, and I approached Zak, what if we do something together for Daytona. I know Zak shares my vision of motorsport, a much wider vision, and exploring different opportunities.”

Alonso, at 36 years old, will enter Daytona as the combined age of his two confirmed co-drivers – McLaren junior and recently crowned FIA F3 European champion Lando Norris and sports car rookie Philip Hanson, who will both be 18 at time of the race. He already poked fun at the age gap between the two of them there.

With both Alonso and Norris – or as they’ll likely be known as ‘Nando and Lando for this race – under the McLaren umbrella but now co-drivers in the same car, there’s already a good dynamic established between them this year.

“I have a great relationship with him from the very beginning of this year,” Alonso said. “Lando joined McLaren and helped us in the simulator. He’s already tested the F1 car in Hungary.

“We have some chats in the last week about go-kart racing, exchanging some text messages. We’re in close contact, to keep spending time together. Obviously it doesn’t only help us in present time with what he’s doing for McLaren, he’s a great talent and a great drive for McLaren. It’s great for us.”

Alonso will mirror the two youngsters as Daytona rookies, while the team’s second car will feature Paul di Resta, Will Owen and at least one more driver to be named later. United returns to the event for the first time in seven years, Brown’s team having run a Daytona Prototype in the 2011 race in tandem with Michael Shank Racing.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 28: The #23 Johnnie Walker/FXI/UBS Ford Riley driven by Zak Brown, Mark Patterson, Mark Blundell, Martin Brundle drives duing practice for the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 28, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

The Rolex 24 experience is uniquely an American one, because it combines the best melting pot of the racing world in one location.

The fact the primary front straight grandstand doesn’t have a ton of people in it is highly misleading when it comes time to understand the enthusiasm and the allure of the event. Most Rolex 24 attendees do so in the infield, and the symphony of various engine notes light up the long night during the race.

Alonso will test at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 for sure, with a seat fit coming well before then. His participation in an IMSA test in December is doubtful at this stage.

He’s never been to Daytona before, but like Indianapolis, it will offer Alonso his own unique taste of the American racing experience as he continues his growth and development in a new form of motorsport.

“My experience in the Indy 500 showed how much fun I can have in American racing, and how much love I get from the fans,” Alonso said.

“I’ll be happy to join this adventure with United Autosports. As I did in Indianapolis, even if I don’t have experience, when I close the visor, I will go for a win and that’s what matters now.”

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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