Martin Brundle: “Daytona’s the hardest race I’ve done and it’s great to see Alonso having a go”
Thirty years ago, Martin Brundle won the Daytona 24 Hours at his first attempt, sharing a 6-litre V12 Castrol Jaguar XJR-9D Group C prototype with reigning World Sportscar Champion Raul Boesel and Great Dane John Nielsen.
He tackled the Florida classic twice more, finishing second in a Jaguar XJR-12 in 1990 with Nielsen and Price Cobb, and fourth in 2011 in a United Autosports Riley MkXX Daytona Prototype with Mark Blundell, Zak Brown and Mark Patterson.
The 58-year-old Grand Prix veteran-turned award-winning TV commentator and analyst, who went on to lift the World Sportscar Championship at the end of that 1988 season, and win the Le Mans 24 Hours two years later, is well qualified to point out the peculiarities and pitfalls faced by Formula 1 star Fernando Alonso when he tackles the race for the first time this weekend with, appropriately enough, United Autosports.
“I love the fact that Fernando Alonso, in many people’s book the best driver in the world, is doing Daytona. It’s another feather in his cap after the Indianapolis 500 deal last May. That was incredible and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure it would happen. I was very pleased that [McLaren boss] Zak [Brown], who I raced with in my third and final outing at Daytona, and Fernando proved me wrong.
“The Indy thing proved beyond any doubt that he still loves to race. And I admire that old-school enthusiasm – it doesn’t matter what it is or where it is, as long as it’s at a high level and he can be competitive, of course (Goodwood Revival next, Martin?!). There isn’t much baggage in his life, so why not try these things? He just doesn’t seem precious about it all, does he?
“Fernando’s performance at Indy was sensational, unsurprisingly you might say. He embraced it, learned the technique very quickly and led the race, with a fairytale result tantalisingly close. It was all a bit Jim Clark, wasn’t it – missing the Monaco Grand Prix to try it? And I think the IndyCar guys thought it was all pretty cool, too. The PR generated from it was sensational. It painted everyone in a good light: F1, Fernando, McLaren, Indy. It was the same when Nico Hulkenberg went off and won Le Mans with Porsche in the middle of the F1 season.
“The Daytona 24 Hours is a different thing altogether. It’s the hardest race I ever did. I did it three times and was lucky enough to win it in the Jaguar in ’88. The combination of the physical effort up on the banking and the stop-start infield section, as well as dealing with all the traffic and the long periods of darkness, makes it really tough. It’s harder than Le Mans in that respect.
“Fernando’s a world-class driver, so there’s not much advice I can give him. He’ll have to have got his head around the multi-class grid, and sharing the car with Lando [Norris] and Phil [Hanson]. I doubt he’s ever raced anything with a roof, either, so that will require some recalculation. All I can say is that it gets bloody hot in the car. The heat-soak is pretty severe – and you get the extremes of the heat of the day and the cold of the night, which are more noticeable than at Le Mans.
“He’ll have learned a fair bit about the American way of doing things at Indy and, of course, after recent practice and qualifying at Daytona. He was less than a second off pole in qualifying, to put his United Autosports Ligier-Gibson 13th on the grid, so he’s in the ballpark in what is such a long and gruelling race.
“As far as the race goes, getting your head around the yellow flags is important – you can be enjoying a sizeable advantage over a pursuer and have it eradicated by yellows.
“Oh and the traffic! The endurance-racing mindset requires patience, even in the modern era. Reliability is so good now that the races are flat-out sprints, with the onus on spending as little time in the pits as possible, but you still have to be careful. Timing in traffic is crucial.
“You can get into a lovely rhythm once the race settles down. It’s possible, subject to traffic, to lap within half a tenth for lap after lap. You have to look for your pleasures in a different way.
“I hear a lot of people saying that Fernando’s taken his eye off the Formula 1 ball with the Indy and Daytona commitments. I don’t think that’s fair. The race will be all done and dusted before the F1 launches kick off and the limited days of testing get underway. He won’t be missing anything, but instead, be keeping race sharp. The greats used to race all sorts in the 1960s – often a grand prix car, sports-racer and GT or touring car in the same meeting.
“The crucial thing is that he doesn’t hurt himself, of course. Then again you can get hurt cycling or skiing. We mustn’t wrap these guys in cotton wool.
“I think it’s great that he’s embracing these other formulas while still at the top of his game and hope that other guys take a leaf out of his book. It’s changing people’s attitudes towards F1 and F1 drivers and the perception that they’re too blinkered to care about the rest of this wonderful sport we all love.”