OPINION: The F1 calendar vs the Rolex 24

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

OPINION: The F1 calendar vs the Rolex 24

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: The F1 calendar vs the Rolex 24

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Regular readers of this column will be aware that I am a fan of drivers crossing over into different categories. And while I don’t have to bang that drum too much with other series, it’s Formula 1 that seems to distance itself from the rest.

Take the IndyCar grid, for example. With a season-opener at St Petersburg four weeks earlier than F1 gets started, this weekend’s entry list for the Rolex 24 includes:

Alex Palou
Scott Dixon
Pato O’Ward
Colton Herta
Marcus Ericsson
Alexander Rossi
Jimmie Johnson
Helio Castroneves
Simon Pagenaud
Rinus VeeKay
Devlin DeFrancesco

Eleven of the 2022 grid will be racing at Daytona, including seven of the top 10 in last year’s IndyCar championship standings. (Where you at, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal and Will Power?)

Actually, that last point is unfair, because it’s definitely not the IndyCar drivers we need to be searching for. There was a spell when F1 drivers appeared to have their interest piqued by a January endurance race in Florida, I guess for at least one of the two reasons I do: It’s a damn cool event, and – with advance apologies for it being freezing at Daytona Beach this weekend – it’s a fun trip to make for a week when the weather’s very average in Europe and the build-up to the new F1 season hasn’t really started yet.

F1 has a bad habit when it comes to January, and indeed, the entire space between the checkered flag falling at the final race and pre-season testing starting. Sure, there are a few events put on in the week after the final round by some, but then – with a few exceptions – a February car launch tends to be the only time anyone from a team wants to come and deal with the outside world.

And a big part of that is because drivers disappear over the winter and do their own thing, and it’s the stars of the show that fans and media want to hear from the most. For some, there are limits on what they can do laid out in their contracts. But many can choose how to spend their time, and none are really thinking about Daytona anymore.

I say ‘anymore’, because the situation was little bit different back in 2018. Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll were two active F1 drivers who took part, while Lando Norris was on his way to F1 at that stage but shared a car with Alonso.

Alex Palou is passing on the chance to run No.1 on his IndyCar this year, but he does get to use No.01 on the CGR Cadillac DPi that he’ll share with Scott Dixon, Renger van der Zande and Sebastien Bourdais as part of the IndyCar contingent in the Rolex 24 field this weekend. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

It was Stroll who stood out to me at the time, because while Alonso was preparing for Le Mans and commanded the ability to do as he pleased (and he will drive as much as possible – even ending a long day of testing in Abu Dhabi last month with a drive up to Dubai to take part in practice for a 24-hour kart race that he duly won that weekend), the Canadian youngster was making his second appearance, he said, because he enjoyed it so much.

At the time, Stroll explained how the different vibe to F1 made the Rolex so attractive, because he just got to enjoy racing some very quick cars with good friends during the off-season.

Norris, meanwhile, stole the show a little, as he outshone Alonso for a spell in the wet and caught the attention of those in the media room who were unfamiliar with the potential he had shown in junior categories in Europe.

But that impressive run was the only time we’ve seen Norris at Daytona, while Alonso went back and won for Wayne Taylor Racing a year later after taking a break from F1 (and accepting much less money than he initially wanted just to compete).

So when I asked Norris about the potential of a return this year – off the back of such an impressive F1 season when his stock is at its highest – his response was telling.

“No, I think especially with the new car and stuff coming, there’s a lot more focus on F1 still; all my focus is still F1,” Norris said. “I wasn’t in F1 when I did Daytona, so I had a bit more time to just do other things and the season started later, whereas now it’s such a busy season. Especially (because) next season is going to be even worse!”

And he’s right. I can’t lie about the fact that I was very much ready for some time off from F1 by late last year and still don’t feel ready to attack the new season, and that’s coming from someone who didn’t have to physically attend every event in 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

When you’re a driver who did 22 races, including 12 in 16 weeks across four continents from late August onwards, the time when people are finalizing Rolex 24 line-ups is likely going to be the time when you are very much looking forward to a break.

Lando Norris didn’t need much arm-twisting to jump into the United Autosports LMP2 in 2018, but the picture is a little different four years later. Scott LePage/Motorsport Images

Regardless of the regulations that Norris mentions, to then be faced with a season that starts with five races again across four continents – from Miami to Melbourne – means I can understand the “focus on F1” argument that little bit more. It’s a mental thing, that need to feel refreshed and ready to tackle the new season, having given yourself the chance to miss racing enough that you can’t wait to get going again.

That’s not to say drivers don’t want to race other things. It’s that the calendar (and obviously some contractual conflictsm depending on the teams they drive for) severely shortens the window. And when nobody else is doing it, there would be that bit more scrutiny.

Even Zak Brown has stopped trying to convince his McLaren drivers to compete for United Autosports in the major sports car races, such has been the pressure on them to perform from early March to December.

“We’ve been quite focused on just F1 at the moment,” Norris says. “Nothing (has been suggested to drive outside F1). I’ve been very busy with many things, and also a lot of my stuff away from racing. Obviously Daniel (Ricciardo) looked like he had a lot of fun driving Zak’s NASCAR in Texas. He has a lot of cool cars and I’d like to do something, just have not had much time to go and drive some other cars.”

Now that the F1 calendar is so big, that’s likely to be the sort of answer that will come out of the mouth of any driver who holds any interest in competing at Daytona.

And it’s a real shame, because the States is a place some spend their off-seasons training. Pierre Gasly was even working out at the Dolphins facility in Miami this past week. So for some, the logistical challenge is not such a big one, but they know how they feel come the end of such a grueling F1 season, and can’t commit to a 24-hour race with what is sadly limited return.

When the desire is to succeed in F1, winning a Rolex and having fun competing just isn’t quite enough. Rightly or wrongly, a strong race weekend at a grand prix will almost always improve the standing of a driver more than a class win at Daytona would, so their main motivation has to simply be really wanting to do it for themselves.

And as F1 adds more and more to their race schedule, the drivers need to want to do it that little bit more. Without greater involvement from manufacturers in both IMSA and F1, it’s a sad trend that I just don’t see reversing any time soon.

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