It might still be only January, but the weekend just past was the first big one of the 2019 motorsport season, as major action played out around the world.
Six weekend winners and losers in motorsport
In sweltering Santiago, Chile, Formula E put on a great show with the third round of its fifth season, using its new second-generation all-electric single-seater.
Conditions were somewhat cooler in the south of France as the World Rally Championship kicked off with the sport’s most famous round, the Monte Carlo Rally.
And in Florida, some of the world’s most celebrated professional racing drivers congregated for a soggy Daytona 24 Hours sportscar enduro.
Inevitably, there would be stories of glory and woe at all three.
1. Sam Bird wins in Formula E
The 32-year-old Briton scored his eighth win in Formula E and jumped to the top of the points standings after what was officially the hottest race in the series’ four-and-a-bit year history.
The Chilean city of Santiago boiled in 37-degree heat as FE’s drivers dealt with a circuit breaking up and spark single-seaters losing battery energy in such extreme conditions over the course of the 45-minute race.
Virgin Racing’s Bird pulled off two great moves on Daniel Abt and ex-Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein, then piled pressure on leader Sébastien Buemi, who clobbered a wall in his Nissan entry. Bird then showed his experience to nurse his wilting car home.
He survived a brief technical investigation concerning his car’s post-race weight, but is now perfectly placed to go hunting for his first FE title.
2. Buemi left blushing after crash
The season two champion started from pole position after fastest man Lucas di Grassi was dumped to the back of the grid after infringing a new technical rule on brake usage. The Brazilian was predictably, and on this occasion understandably, furious.
Buemi looked set to make the most of his good fortune, leading the majority of the race until Bird mounted his challenge. But passing in FE is notoriously tough. The Swiss just had to keep his cool to score his first win in the new-gen car – but was caught out by a braking problem that he also blamed for an earlier crash in practice.
Sliding onto off-line stones on a right-hander, Buemi crunched into a wall, breaking his front wing and suspension. Vital points lost for a man who has always been a title threat in FE. He’ll need an amazing run of form to make up the lost ground in the remaining 10 rounds – but considering his record in the series, you’d be foolish to think it beyond him.
3. Ogier wins on Citroën return
You have to hand it to him. Sébastien Ogier, consecutive six-time World Rally Champion, made his first start for Citroën since 2011 in Monte-Carlo – and promptly won the big one for a seventh time, equalling the record of old nemesis Sébastien Loeb. Who said the C3 was a handful?
But it was close. Yes, Ogier led from Friday afternoon, but Thierry Neuville – who almost dethroned the Frenchman last year – was always in range in his Hyundai i20. And on Sunday morning he closed in for the kill, starting the Powerstage finale just 0.4 seconds down.
The bespectacled Belgian began quickly, but Ogier fought back on the stage to clock a time good enough to secure victory – by just 2.2sec.
Toyota’s Ott Tänak impressed with another mature performance on his way to third – and the promise of a classic WRC season now looks a certainty after a thrilling Monte.
4. Low-key Toyota debut for Meeke
While Tänak led early on and fought back to third place after a puncture, Kris Meeke endured niggling problems that forced him into a relatively minor role at the start of his golden last-chance with Toyota.
The Northern Irishman lost time with the wrong choice of tyre on Friday that also affected his team-mates. Choosing studs for what was expected to be a stage on snow and ice could have been inspired – until the organisers cancelled the run because of spectator safety concerns. That left team boss Tommi Mäkinen raging, as his drivers found themselves on the wrong tyre for the rest of the loop.
Meeke also lost a chunk of time with a wheel rim problem – but at least he didn’t crash. A steady sixth place behind Tänak, Loeb – who finished a solid fourth on his Hyundai debut – and the other Yaris of Jari-Matti Latvala in fifth at least scored him points, and something to build on for the next round in snowy Sweden.
5. Alonso wins the Daytona 24 Hours
Then at the end of an action-packed weekend, a black Cadillac DPi prototype was declared the winner of a drenched Rolex 24 at Daytona. The car, run by Wayne Taylor Racing, was driven by Dutchman Renger van der Zande, former F1 ace Kamui Kobayashi and popular IMSA racer Jordan Taylor. Oh, and some guy called Fernando Alonso.
The great matador, making his second start in the Florida classic, was unsurprisingly the inspirational force behind this win, putting in stunning stints when the rain came. And it was Alonso who took the lead as former Sauber racer Felipe Nasr felt the heat of his pressure and ran wide at Turn 1.
The race was red-flagged for a second time because of the weather and the result called with 10 minutes still officially to run.
And so Alonso notches another big one to his belt, seven months after his Le Mans 24 Hours success with Toyota. Now Indy beckons in May to complete that ‘legendary all-rounder’ mantle he’s chasing with such vim.
6. Rain spoils Daytona for the fans
While there were plenty of tales of woe down the strong field of prototypes and GTs, surely the biggest losers in Florida were the fans. Daytona in January is usually a delightful place to be, especially for adventurous Europeans sick of darkness and winter. But not this year.
Great and momentous result, but a stinker of a day-night classic when it came to the weather.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images/Citroën Racing/Toyota Gazoo Racing.
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