DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – As he followed the pace car through the backstretch chicane nicknamed “the bus stop,” Fernando Alonso saw the driver nearly lose control. That’s when he knew it was time to end things at Daytona International Speedway.
It wasn’t long before he got his wish.
Saying he was in fear racing in a steady, heavy rain, Alonso passed Felipe Nasr for the lead of the 57th annual Rolex 24 At Daytona on Sunday. Two laps later, the race was red-flagged for a second time. It never restarted, and Alonso added yet another landmark achievement to a prolific career that includes two Formula One championships and leading the Indianapolis 500 in his only attempt to date.
“It ranks quite high,” Alonso said. “Daytona is one of those venues and speedways that you would like to win eventually one day in your career. I’ve been lucky enough to win grands prix in Monaco and Spa and Suzuka and Malaysia and Silverstone and my home country of Spain. To add Daytona to that list is quite special.”
The Rolex 24, the opening race of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, was an important part of the expansion and rejuvenation of a career that has seen Alonso embrace different forms of racing, including the Indy 500, after 18 years in Formula One. He’s chasing auto racing’s Triple Crown – winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500. He’s won Le Mans and Monaco, and he’ll try again for Indy in May with McLaren.
“To win in different series and disciplines of motorsport that are quite specific, you need to be born with that talent and grow up with knowledge of that series, like INDYCAR. To try to be competitive and win is something that, in the modern era of motorsport, is quite difficult,” Alonso said. “In the past, I think it was a little more open – motorsport in general – but now every series has become very, very professional. It takes full dedication in each series.”
Sharing the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. with Renger Van Der Zande, Jordan Taylor and Kamui Kobayashi, Alonso was spectacular after rain began to fall before 6 a.m. ET Sunday. The race was plagued by caution periods related to the rain, eventually leading to the second red flag at 12:39 p.m., less than two hours short of the 24-hour mark. It was officially called at 23 hours, 50 minutes, and Alonso and his teammates celebrated victory.
Afterward, Alonso described how he was following the pace car when it nearly spun out in the rain.
“He nearly crashed after the bus stop,” Alonso said. “I was following him, and he had a massive moment aquaplaning. The safety car was pointing toward the wall at one point.”
The move of the race occurred just two laps before the final red flag, when Alonso slipped past Nasr’s No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi. Alonso complained repeatedly about the conditions before he made the pass.
“There were parts of different cars in different parts of the track,” he said. “People were losing bodywork here and there. I was calling the team for a safety car immediately. I could not see anything. Then Felipe went a little long into Turn 1 and we took the lead. We were just lucky in that moment.”
Alonso was already 13.458 seconds ahead of the No. 31 car shared by Nasr, Eric Curran and Pipo Derani when the final red flag waved. Acura Team Penske’s No. 7 Acura DPi, shared by 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and sports car star Ricky Taylor, finished third.
Alonso wasn’t the only driver with connections to the Indy 500 and INDYCAR to win Sunday at Daytona. Sebastian Saavedra, who has 65 NTT IndyCar Series races and six Indy 500s on his resume, won the LMP2 class with Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed Racing, the team that will compete in five INDYCAR races this season with Ben Hanley, who finished second in the LMP2 class.
Colton Herta, who will compete full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this season, was part of BMW Team RLL’s victory in the GTLM class. The team is an offshoot of INDYCAR regular Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
In November, Alonso announced that he’ll enter the 103rd Indy 500 in May with McLaren. In 2017, he was a hit in his Indy debut, starting fifth and leading 27 laps before a mechanical issue left him with a 24th-place finish.
The rainy race wasn’t as kind to other Indy-related teams, including Acura Team Penske and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. Penske’s cars finished third and sixth in the DPi class, while Ganassi’s cars finished third and seventh in the GTLM class.
Five drivers set to compete in the full 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule raced in the Rolex 24 – Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais, Rossi and Herta – while eight teams with INDYCAR programs were also involved.
The NTT IndyCar Series season begins March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). It’s the first of 17 races on the 2019 schedule.