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.
Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.
Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.
Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.
Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.
Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).
“It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.
“It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”
In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.
“We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.
“We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”
Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).
In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.
It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.
“We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.
“We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”
Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).
In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).
It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.
“It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.
“Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”
NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).
TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.
PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.