“Guys, there are people at Daytona who aren’t called Fernando…”

The tweet of Sportscar365 writer and friend Jake Kilshaw summed up the thoughts of many a sports car journalist who made their annual trip to Daytona International Speedway for this year’s Rolex 24.

For all of the hype surrounding two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso’s sports car debut, his first step towards an anticipated Le Mans entry to further his bid for the ‘triple crown of motorsport’, there was still an endurance race taking place with more than 150 other drivers entered, many of whom perhaps didn’t deserve to be overshadowed by the star rookie.

Yet there was no getting away from the fact Alonso was the headline name for this year’s race. Many F1 fans who wouldn’t ordinarily have watched Daytona tuned in, giving the race greater reach and heightened interest. Fans at Daytona flocked to the pit walks and driver signings to try and get a glimpse of Alonso, knowing the significance of his debut.

But come the race itself, a more understated figure stole the limelight away from Alonso’s.

And he did it in the very same car.

Lando Norris was embarking on a very similar journey to Alonso at Daytona. He too was making his sports car racing debut, driving for United Autosports, a team co-owned by McLaren executive director Zak Brown. Norris has been lighting up junior formulae for many years, and will step up to Formula 2 in 2018, with comparisons being drawn to Lewis Hamilton for a while already as Britain’s next great F1 hope.

Given the pace deficit of United Autosports’ Ligier LMP2 car compared to the DPi front-runners and, to some extent, the Oreca LMP2 runners, victory was never really on the cards for Alonso, Norris and co-driver Phil Hanson at Daytona. Alonso led the team to 13th on the grid in qualifying, finishing some 1.2 seconds clear of the sister United entry, and took the start on Saturday afternoon.

In typical Fernando Alonso style, the start was seamless. Alonso picked up a couple of positions and enjoyed a number of close battles through the opening stint, finding his feet in his first experience of a proper sports car race, traffic and all.

The United car was shuffled back down the order through the first couple of pit stop cycles, but soon began to rise up the order as cars ahead hit trouble. The team was able to extend out its stints better than many of its rivals, with Alonso even briefly leading at one stage before handing over to Hanson after a couple of hours.

By the time Hanson had completed his stint and Norris was ready to race, United stood on the fringes of the top five.

And that is when the magic began.

Norris immediately hit the ground running, halving the gap to Paul di Resta in the other United car one position ahead in a few laps. The gap to the lead car was at well over one minute, though, albeit reducing slowly.

Because Norris didn’t have enough to deal with on his sports car racing debut - he’d neither properly dealt with traffic or night racing before - the weather gods decided to throw some heavy rain into the mix also, with a short but very sharp rain shower hitting Daytona as night fell. The majority of the field dived into the pits, with Norris getting his first proper wet running in a sports car on a grand stage.

What Norris then produced was a masterclass of wet-weather driving. He was the fastest man on the track by several seconds, whittling the gap to the leaders right down. While United had looked at risk of falling off the lead lap at one stage, now Norris was bringing the team into contention with the teams running fastest chassis. The gap dropped from over a minute to less than half a minute in pretty much no time at all, leaving the #23 United car a stunning fourth overall by the time Norris completed his stint and handed back over to Hanson.

It may have been only one stint, yet it was Norris’ way of truly announcing himself on the global stage. In the same car as Fernando Alonso and with less experience than the two-time F1 champion, he’d gone faster and been the stand-out driver of the trio.

Things ultimately didn’t work out for United. A brake issue cost the #23 car a chunk of time overnight, with further problems ultimately leaving the car 90 laps down come the chequered flag, being classified 38th overall - but Norris had made his mark. His lap of 1:38.011 was the fastest of the three drivers, with Alonso falling 0.141 seconds shy.

“Gotta say Lando Norris is in a class of his own,” Daytona entrant Gustavo Yacaman wrote on Twitter after seeing the Briton’s stint. “Pretty impressive pace.”

For Alonso, given his knowledge of Norris, the performance came as little surprise. That didn’t make it any less impressive though.

“For the people that don’t know Lando, it will be a surprise for them,” Alonso said. “The stints he did were very impressive. The work, the preparation, the focus…

“I think at night, you will check when we switched to wet tyres that was only one stint, we were fifth, one minute behind the leader, and then we switched to slick tyres in damp conditions, Lando driving, and we were 27 seconds behind the leaders.

“Even in wet conditions, first time in a prototype car, first time at Daytona, first time on the Continental tyres, he recovered 33 seconds in 20 laps.

“He is 18 years old. That’s quite impressive.”

Norris wasn’t overly happy come the end of the race, though. While obviously pleased to have popped his 24-hour cherry, he wasn’t happy with how the car had felt through the race, with Alonso and Hanson feeling the same.

United had struggled with problems through January, and it failed to culminate in a satisfying result, even if the #32 car did ease the pain somewhat by finishing fifth for the team. With a clean race, a shock podium may have been within reach for the #23 crew; Norris had his sights set even higher.

“Every time I went out on track I had a lot of fun – that was the whole idea of doing it,” Norris said. “It’s more of a team game from what I’m used to – you want to do good for everyone. The team worked really hard since the Roar to improve the car.

“We struggled because it seems the car and this track don’t get along. But we all kept pushing and our race pace was pretty impressive. We were sometimes the fastest car on-track but mainly in the top-five. We could have possibly won…”

We’ve known for some time that Norris is a special talent - but at every single hurdle, he has impressed. There hasn’t been a single challenge at which he has struggled thus far. Even in an ‘add-on’ event such as Daytona, he has given it his absolute all, proving what a spectacular and, importantly, committed talent he is.

He may be very much in the formative stages of his career, but Norris is shaping up to be a driver similar to Alonso, happy to take on any challenge on offer. While much of the F1 field focus solely on F1, even when there is freedom to give other disciplines a go, Norris isn’t looking to do that - and with McLaren’s encouragement (and, perhaps more crucially, that of Brown), he has a good platform to do exactly that.

“I’m definitely more one of the drivers who would want to do Daytona, Le Mans, and the Indy 500,” Norris said earlier this month when I asked him if he saw himself more as an ‘Alonso-style’ driver, doing events outside of F1.

“Obviously I don’t race in Formula 1 yet. I know it’s extremely tough, and Fernando has been given more opportunities than the other drivers to go and do it. So that’s one of the reasons.

“But if I have an opportunity, then I definitely would. I enjoy doing all of the GT cars, LMP2, all of that stuff. I really enjoy it. If I can do it, I definitely would, but I need to wait and see how strict it is in Formula 1 and what they allow you to do.

“But Zak’s quite a good guy in that he wants to do it as well. Hopefully he pushes to it and pushes for it in the future, and I can be on-board to do those races.”

Much as last year’s Indianapolis 500 will be remembered as the ‘Alonso 500’, this year’s Rolex 24 may go down as being the ‘Alonso 24’. He was the hype man. He was the catalyst for so much more media coverage and interest.

But the real star ended up being the humble, hungry, rising figure in British motorsport who did his talking on-track - which is exactly how the sports car press corps likes its racing, right?

And who knows? It may not be too long until we see Norris taking the fight to Alonso in the same car again in the future.

Because if he can make a splash in F2 this year and take to it with the same confidence and quality he did at Daytona last weekend, it could leave McLaren with a big, big dilemma for 2019.

 

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