Fernando Alonso's venture into endurance racing is such a rare phenomenon for a leading F1 driver these days that his progress at Daytona has understandably attracted considerable attention. There have been excited tweets about how close the double world champion was to pole and how much faster he is compared to the next driver in the same car. Fair play to him.
Perhaps this is not the moment to mention that on this weekend fifty years ago, Vic Elford won the Monte Carlo Rally, crossed the Atlantic and, a few days later, gave Porsche their first victory in the Daytona 24 Hours. A vastly different era, of course. But such a remarkable statistic stands the test of time and adds an interesting perspective to the forensic examination of Fernando's mission.
Elford had been largely responsible for getting Porsche into rallying, the German company's reluctance being such that they finally agreed to loan him a 911S for the 1966 Tour de Course but with, as Elford recalls, "no money, no practice car, minimal service. They told me there were no spares because Porsches didn't break." True to form, this one didn't. He finished third.
That was enough to prompt a works effort for 1967, Elford becoming European Champion (the highest honour at the time). Victory in the Monte Carlo Rally that year eluded Vic because snow tyres were not available when he needed them. For 1968, Elford literally turned the tables by daring to fit racing tyres for the final stage across the mountains, controlling the potent rear-wheel drive 911T through icy sections at the top and gaining maximum performance on the 120 mph descent. He took a full minute off his nearest rival on that stage alone to secure what remains the last Monte Carlo Rally victory for a British driver.
Pictures show the Englishman arriving at the final control with a customary cigarette hanging from his lips. Once the formalities were done at the Royal Palace, Elford jumped on a plane to the U.S.A. He had never been to Florida before, let alone seen the Daytona International Speedway. There, he did the bulk of the driving in the winning long-tail 907, finishing several laps ahead of his Porsche team-mates; all of this barely nine months after his first international motor race.
That was not the end of it. A couple of months later, despite losing 16 minutes with a loose wheel and then a puncture on a Porsche 906 shared with the veteran, Umberto Maglioli, Elford drove five of the six and a half hours in unbearable heat to smash the Targa Florio lap record around the dusty Sicilian roads and win by three minutes. Nine weeks after that, in teeming rain on the daunting road circuit at Rouen, he finished fourth for Cooper in his first Grand Prix.
Elford, now 82, lives near Miami and a couple of hundred miles south of Daytona and a very different racing world to the one he knew 50 years ago. Alonso says he is out of his comfort zone this weekend. Victor Henry Elford from Peckham, South London, was never in one.