United Autosports’ co-owners Zak Brown and Richard Dean have vowed to make a quick return to the Daytona International Speedway after the Anglo-American team made a big impression in the Rolex 24 this weekend (27-28 Jan). The outfit’s brace of Ligier JS P217 LMP2 sports-prototypes both led the race at various times and were inside the top-10 and vying for podiums for the majority of the race. The UK-based team ultimately achieved fourth (#32) overall and 13th (#23) in class on its full Rolex début, a puncture plus brake and throttle sensor issues afflicting the #23 while a clutch malfunction with just over five hours to run demoted the #32 from third-place. The United entries undoubtedly made a massive impact in the opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
The #32 car of Hugo De Sadeleer, Paul Di Resta, Will Owen and Bruno Senna clocked up 803-laps (average speed 119.116mph) while the sister #23 Ligier of Fernando Alonso, Phil Hanson and Lando Norris completed 716 tours (106.316mph) of the 3.6-mile, 12-turn Daytona International Speedway racing against numerous factory teams in the top class. Former double F1 World Champion Alonso had qualified the #23 13th on the 50-car grid – less than one-second off pole – with reigning FIA LMP2 World Endurance Champion Senna a further two-places back. The United Ligiers ran inside the top-nine after two hours while both cars led briefly (Alonso & Di Resta twice) during pit-stop phases inside four hours, the #32 leap-frogging the sister Ligier at 6pm – the United cars leading the way in LMP2, the highest-placed non DPi cars. McLaren F1 test and reserve driver Norris had taken the #23 back ahead of the #32 and into sixth after five-hours just prior to a rain shower – Lando running third – the fastest car on-track in the treacherously slippery conditions – and led prior to pitting for slick tyres. But the #23 running sixth with 2016-17 LMP3 Asian Le Mans Series champion Hanson at the wheel, cruelly collected a right, rear puncture just after 10pm, the flailing rubber necessitating a rear deck and tail change with Alonso resuming 11th but crucially over three laps down on the leader.
The #23 had recovered brilliantly to sixth but at 1am, Alonso suffered a long brake pedal rectified by a new brake master cylinder, Norris returning to the race 16th in class and now 25-laps down after garage repairs lasting 40mins. Meanwhile the #32 crew continued to set consistent times with clean laps and lay an excellent third at mid-distance having quietly but efficiently moved up the leaderboard. Cruelly, with almost 18hrs completed, the #32 suffered a clutch problem losing 10mins which dropped the car two places to fifth although the driver crew spent the closing stages battling for fourth place. The team decided that as the #23 could not gain any further places in the final 75mins, a decision was made to park the Ligier until the final laps to save the car from unnecessary additional wear and tear.
A combined 6,250-miles achieved at the unique Florida venue since Thursday’s opening practice session will serve as good experience for United which will return for three further IMSA races this season starting with the Sebring 12 Hours (17 Mar). Crucial data concerning the new front aerodynamics being raced on the Ligiers for the first time will prove invaluable for the remainder of United’s season – both in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, experience with the Continental tyres and U.S. competition in general gleaned this past week should again put United in contention in the remaining three Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races. The UK-based team has quickly taken the sportscar scene by storm in Europe and will embark on its mission to win the European Le Mans Series LMP3 title for a third consecutive year and its maiden LMP2 title – having finished second in the standings in its début year in that category – at Paul Ricard (F) in April. In addition to the six-race ELMS programme, plus a Le Mans 24 Hours entry, United will contest the remaining three Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds – which also included this weekend’s race – at Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans with its LMP2 Ligier.