Alonso anchors victory in first Rolex 24 stopped for rain

<p>
              Cars from the IMSA 24-hour race sit idle on pit road after the race was red-flagged because of rain at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
            </p>

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Fernando Alonso was the only driver on the Wayne Taylor Racing team with extensive experience racing in the rain, so he was the natural choice to carry the heaviest load in the weather-ruined Rolex 24 at Daytona.

But when the puddles turned to small ponds and the unrelenting rain made it nearly impossible to see, the two-time Formula One champion had enough.

He argued the conditions were too treacherous to continue, a complaint he lodged even when running second in the closing hours of the twice-round-the-clock endurance event. Despite the challenges, Alonso deftly dodged the danger to grab another victory in a bucket-list event.

Alonso drove a Cadillac DPi to the front of the field in each of his three stints in the Rolex, including the final pass for the lead minutes before IMSA finally parked the cars. The race was red-flagged minutes after Alonso cruised past Filipe Nasr, who had missed a turn and drove off course into a deep pool of standing water.

“I think the last five or seven laps of the race were not, I think, right for anyone that we were on track because the visibility was nearly zero,” Alonso said. “I was calling the team for a safety car immediately because I could not see anything.”

When the safety car finally pulled the field down pit lane, Alonso grabbed an umbrella and went to talk to the driver. Although he leaned in the open door for a discussion with someone, he said later it was a different IMSA official because the driver had already left the car following a near-wreck in the rain.

“I went to talk to him because he nearly crashed,” Alonso said. “I was following him, and he had a massive moment of hydroplaning. Immediately after, he called red flag. I think he was a little bit scared in that moment, and when I jumped out of the car and I went to the safety car to see him, he was not there anymore.

“They called to the driver, and I said ‘Are you OK? You nearly crashed. Conditions are tricky.’ He said like, ‘It’s not my call’ or something like that.”

Teams waited nearly two hours before IMSA called the race 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion. It marked the first time rain prevented the Rolex from going the full 24 hours, and it was the first time in race history the event was stopped twice for red flags for rain.

Alonso was sitting under a blanket on the Taylor pit stand when the race was called.

“It’s too bad we didn’t get to race the full distance, but we led the race in night, day, dry, wet, so I think we all kind of deserve this one,” he said.

Alonso joined Phil Hill (1964) and Mario Andretti (1972) as F1 champions to also win the most prestigious sports car event in North America. Alonso, who has two F1 titles, retired from that series in November.

The Spaniard now has won the Rolex, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix. The next big event on his schedule is the Indianapolis 500 in May, the one victory he needs to complete auto racing’s unofficial version of the Triple Crown.

Wayne Taylor Racing now has four overall Rolex victories. The team won in 1996 and 2005 with team owner Wayne Taylor driving, and Jeff Gordon was part of its 2017 victory. The team this year brought in Alonso and Kamui Kobayashi, teammates at Le Mans, to join full-time drivers Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande. Jordan Taylor was part of the winning team two years ago.

Alex Zanardi’s return to a North American race for the first time since his legs were severed in a 2001 crash was hampered by mechanical problems, including an early electrical issue with the BMW-designed steering wheel that allowed the Italian to race without his prosthetic legs.

Zanardi used the wheel to accelerate, brake, shift and communicate with the car. Even though the Bobby Rahal-owned team finished 18 laps down in the GT Le Mans class, the venture was a success. Zanardi drove three times totaling 6 hours, 17 minutes; his final stint was disrupted by the heavy rain at daybreak.

“He shows very clearly that life isn’t over and you can still go out and live and do whatever it is you want,” Rahal said.

Rahal’s second BMW M8 entry won the GTLM class with Augsto Farfus, Connor De Phillippi, Phillipp Eng and Colton Herta.

The LMP2 class was won by the No. 18 DragonSpeed Oreca with drivers Roberto Gonzalez, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Saavedra and Ryan Cullen, while the No. 11 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan won the GT Daytona class for the second consecutive year with Rolf Ineichen, Mirko Bortolotti, Christian Englehart and Rik Breukers.

Alonso, meanwhile, was the heavyweight in the Wayne Taylor lineup and dazzled every time he got into the Cadillac. He competed in the Rolex last year as a warmup for Le Mans but returned this time intent on winning the Rolex watch. His first time in the rotation Saturday night was a triple stint in which he took the lead away from both of Roger Penske’s Acura entries.

He drove again early Sunday morning and had the car out front for a lengthy yellow period that ultimately ended in the first stoppage for rain since 2004.

Alonso got the car back one final time to close out the race and took the lead when Felipe Nasr missed a turn and drove through a deep patch of water. Alonso stayed on course to move to the point, and when IMSA brought the cars to pit road minutes later under red, he walked under an umbrella to IMSA’s pace car and leaned inside the open door to discuss the conditions with the driver.

Alonso then joined his teammates in the pits to await IMSA’s decision.

“It was a very difficult race. The conditions were quite a shock sometimes,” Alonso said. “You had to survive every lap. It wasn’t a matter of lap times or anything like that. It was a matter of crossing the line, putting the lap together and at the end, it worked.”