We may be almost three months away from the beginning of the new Formula 1 season in Australia, but a couple of the series’ stars will be in action much earlier when they kick-start a busy year of sports car duties.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona will mark the opening event for the sports car calendar next year, taking place at Daytona International Speedway on January 27-28, and will welcome F1 racers Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll to the grid.
Two-time F1 world champion Alonso will be making his sports car racing debut at Daytona with United Autosports, racing in the Prototype class as part of a star-studded line-up for the Anglo-American team.
The deal for Alonso to race for United came about via McLaren executive director Zak Brown, who is also a co-owner of the sports car team and was instrumental in Alonso’s appearance at the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year.
While nothing official has been signed beyond Daytona, Alonso’s entry is very much about preparing to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans later this year with Toyota.
Much as Alonso’s debut at the Indy 500 was about pursuing his dream to win the ‘triple crown of motorsport’, an accolade only held once in racing history, Le Mans is the next step in that push.
Alonso’s ‘500 display was remarkable, qualifying fifth and leading a decent chunk of the race despite having never driven the car prior to an orientation test at the start of May, but his chance of winning Le Mans is even greater. In fact, you could say it’s 50/50.
Following Porsche’s exit from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, Toyota will be the sole manufacturer racing in the top category at Le Mans next year. While a number of privateers will be stepping up to LMP1, they’re unlikely to pose much of a challenge to the might of Toyota.
Toyota is likely to enter two cars to Le Mans in 2018 – its full-season WEC entries – and a seat is there for Alonso following a successful first test in Bahrain in November. All parties remained tight-lipped about the test due to contract complications, but the noises coming out of the team were very positive indeed.
Toyota has been rumored to be considering a shake-up of its line-up, with multiple sources indicating to NBC Sports that at least one, if not two, of its existing drivers are set to be jettisoned. This opens up a seat for Alonso to take – for more than just Le Mans.
While WEC has looked precarious following Porsche’s LMP1 exit, the resulting revamped ‘super season’ calendar has its perks. The fact there are just five events in 2018 means Alonso can theoretically do a wider WEC program without affecting his F1 commitments too badly.
With just one clash – between the United States Grand Prix and the WEC round at Fuji – Alonso can appear at Spa, Le Mans, Silverstone and Shanghai next year, giving him plenty of opportunities to spread his wings outside of F1 and hone his sports car skills, with Daytona marking the start of his new adventure.
Alonso will be racing with some familiar names at Daytona. McLaren junior Lando Norris and Williams F1 test driver Paul di Resta are also part of United Autosports’ line-up, making it one of the teams to watch.
Besides Alonso, fellow F1 full-time Lance Stroll will also be appearing at Daytona in January, making his second start at the Rolex 24 following a debut run to P5 with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016.
Stroll, 19, will be making his first sports car appearance since then at the race, linking up with Jackie Chan DCR Jota alongside Felix Rosenqvist, Robin Frijns and Daniel Juncadella. The quartet are all close friends and all respected, successful racers, making it another interesting story to follow for the race.
Stroll remained coy when grilled about the possibility of more sports car racing outings through 2018, with the lack of clash between Le Mans and an F1 weekend giving anyone interested a chance to venture to the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Who else could dip their toe into the sports car water next year? Kevin Magnussen has long made his wish to race at Le Mans clear, preferably with his father, Jan, who races for Corvette. With the Corvette line-up set for the season, though, it seems unlikely the Haas driver would make his bow.
Magnussen’s teammate, Romain Grosjean, also has Le Mans on his hit list for the future, but has again stressed he only wants to do it if he can do it right. With Toyota holding the only realistic overall win hopes, unless he could find a seat there, an entry seems unlikely.
Nico Hulkenberg was the last active F1 driver to enter Le Mans, taking a famous overall victory with Porsche in its third car in 2015 that Alonso would look to replicate. Given Porsche has already fixed up its line-up in GTE-Pro, a return with the German marque looks off the table.
Nevertheless, as the season ticks on and Le Mans draws closer, we’re likely to get a better picture of what active F1 racers may be tempted to give sports car racing’s greatest event a crack.
But even if it’s only Alonso flying the flag for F1, it will be a year that sees the series expand its horizons to other disciplines.
We may be long gone from the days of Mario Andretti criss-crossing the Atlantic to take part in two races on the same weekend, but there is nevertheless something refreshing about seeing F1’s stars have a shot at different series.
John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.
The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).
Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.
Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”
Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.
“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).
“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”
It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.
Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.
“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.
Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:
Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.
The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.
Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.
“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”
In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.
Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.
“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”
Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.
In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.
“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”
The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
FINAL FINISHING ORDER:
TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.
FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.
TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.