Dan Gurney, one of the legends of US motorsport, and who died on January 14 at the age of 86, was the first to take the checkered flag at the inaugural race of what is now known as the 24 Hours of Daytona, an event that will be celebrating its 56th edition this weekend. He did so under electric power, but not because he was driving an earlier version of a Formula E car. In fact, with just minutes to go until the end of the race, he suspected that the engine in his Lotus was about to give out. Given his comfortable advantage, he stopped a few meters from the finish line and waited for the clock to run down. Once the checkered flag began to wave, he started up the car in gear and crossed the line at a crawl, becoming the first winner of the now-legendary race.
Former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya has taken the win three times, and will be the biggest winner among the drivers who will be taking part
As well as Gurney, who won races in Formula 1 and at the even more celebrated Le Mans endurance race, other big names from the sport such as Mario Andretti and Phil Hill have taken the crown at Daytona. More recently, former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya has taken the win three times, and will be the biggest winner among the drivers who will be taking part in the race, which gets going on Saturday at 8.40pm Spanish time.
At Daytona, 50 cars will be divided into three different classes, led by the prototypes that will be vying for the overall win, and in which Fernando Alonso will be competing for the first time, starting in 13th place. Also on the grid from Spain will be Daniel Juncadella, from Barcelona.
Alonso will be leading up a driver team in which his age is the sum total of his two colleagues
In the GTLM class, Antonio García (Corvette Racing) will be seeking his third win, and the GTD class – which features similar cars to the former, but with lower performance – will see Miguel Molina lead the line-up of a Risi Competizione Ferrari 488.
The differences between the hugely varied vehicles are evened out under a complex series of rules, under parameters known as Balance of Performance (BoP). On the one hand are the Dpi cars (International Daytona Prototype), developed specifically for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) championship, with engines of differing characteristics. On the other are the LMP2 (Prototype Le Mans 2), which include the Ligier of Alonso and the Oreca of Juncadella, and which complete in championships such as the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and the European Le Mans under tighter rules and with the same Gibson engines. By restricting the engines, weight and aerodynamics, the performance of the cars is kept close.
Despite the regulations, testing at the start of the month in Daytona saw the four Cadillacs dominate, with the former F1 driver Felipe Nasr setting the bar high in the first qualifying session, leaving Alonso – in the best of the three Ligier cars – 1.7 seconds behind.
But these sessions have not always revealed the true order of the cars on the day, given that the teams usually hide their genuine potential so as to not be punished later due to changes in the BoP. Despite this, in the case of Alonso, there difference was no fiction. Based on the early sessions the organization has restricted the engines of the Cadillacs, which are the favorites, taking away some of their horsepower.
United Autosports – the team belonging to Zak Brown, the current boss of Alonso at his F1 McLaren team – has already raced at Daytona before, with Brown himself as a driver, and finishing fourth in 2011. However, the set-up they have taken to Florida for this weekend’s race is new, as are six of the seven drivers that will be driving their number 23 and 32 cars. The former will feature Alonso, together with the new McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris and Phil Hanson, both from the UK.
In what could serve as a new step toward his competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Alonso will be making his debut in a resistance race as a visitor and leading up a driver team in which his age is the sum total of his two colleagues (both are just 18). The team does not have the fastest car on the grid, which has prompted Brown to set a top-five finish among their objectives. But in just a couple of laps anything can change during this race. Last year, for example, the winner took the lead with just seven minutes of the race to go. Sometimes Daytona has more than a few surprises in store.
English version by Simon Hunter.