Sports car duties beckon for F1 figures throughout 2018

Adrenal Media
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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.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 24: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams prepares to drive in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2017 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”