The annual three-day test, affording IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship teams prime preparation for the 57th anniversary running of the Rolex 24 At DAYTONA on Jan. 26-27, opened on Friday at Daytona International Speedway.
Forty-seven cars ... and many accompanying stars.
That’s the scene this weekend with a world-class field convening at the “World Center of Racing.” The Rolex 24, the season-opening event for the WeatherTech Championship – and the kickoff for IMSA’s 50th anniversary season – may be three weeks down the road, but the show is unquestionably under way on the 3.56-mile DIS road course.
There were two practices on Friday for the four WeatherTech Championship classes: DPi, LMP2, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona. There also were two practices for the production car-based IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series, which opens the season on Jan. 25 at DIS with the BMW Endurance Challenge. In addition, qualifying was held for what is actually IMSA’s first 2019 competition, Saturday’s 3-hour IMSA Prototype Challenge race.
WeatherTech Championship regulars are being joined by high-profile drivers from other racing disciplines to create several “dream teams,” always part of the Rolex 24’s allure.
Former Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso has returned after last year’s Daytona debut. He is co-driving a Cadillac DPi for one of IMSA’s premier Prototype teams, Wayne Taylor Racing, partnered with Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi, who was also Alonso’s teammate in the World Endurance Championship.
As Alonso’s F1 career winds down, his interest in sports car racing is ramping up. He raced in both the Rolex 24 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year.
“In Formula 1, it’s all about qualifying and the first lap and the first corner,” Alonso said. “Here, it’s all about consistency and traffic management and keeping the car safe. It’s challenging, but it’s part of the process. Last year here, it was about preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This year it’s about winning. And it’s definitely a possibility that I could race at different venues in IMSA in the future and maybe a championship one day.”
Alonso’s teammate Jordan Taylor says his “one-off” teammates are coming along at the perfect time.
“There’s a lot to learn and a lot to adjust to [for new 2019 rules],” Taylor said. “I think having Kamui and Fernando can help expedite that learning process a lot. They all have 24-hour experience and understand these races are won in the last couple of hours.”
Former IndyCar driver Alex Zanardi is co-driving a BMW with John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Mozzie Mostert.
Zanardi has been at DIS once before, back in 1997 racing in the old International Race of Champions series. Much has transpired for the Italian legend since; a 2001 IndyCar accident in Germany resulted in the amputation of bothlegs. He has since reinvented his competitiveness, becoming one of the world’s top hand cyclists. He also has continued to race cars, competing with BMW in the World Touring Car Championship and the Blancpain GT Sprint Series. His team’s BMW M8 GTE features special hand controls for Zanardi.
“I always wanted to be part of this event,” Zanardi said. “It’s very, very special.”
Another major name, Acura Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya – a three-time champion of both the Rolex 24 and the Indianapolis 500 – said of Zanardi: “He’s achieved so much since his accident, it’s incredible. To run here is amazing. I think his accident would, for anybody, would bring them down, but he’s made the most of it."
“And ... he’s still very quick.”
On the subject of quickness, Oliver Jarvis led the first Rolex 24 practice in a Mazda DPi, with a fast lap of 1 minute, 35.989 seconds – 133.509 mph. The second session was topped by Kobayashi (1:36.596/132.670).
Michelin Pilot Challenge practices were led by Charlie Luck in a Porsche Cayman (1:54.280/112.140) and Owen Trinkler in a Mercedes AMG (1:54.816/111.616).
Friday’s action ended when Garett Grist (2:00.030) earned the pole for the IMSA Prototype Challenge, a prototype only series.
Tickets for the Rolex 24 At DAYTONA, the 61st annual DAYTONA 500 and other Daytona International Speedway events can be purchased online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP. Fans can stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Snapchat, and by downloading Daytona International Speedway’s mobile app, for the latest speedway news throughout the season