Alonso in the United Autosport Liger LMP2 during qualifying for the IMSA 24-hour endurance race at Daytona International Speedway in Florida. Picture: John Raoux / AP

Daytona Beach, Florida - Fernando Alonso was 13th out of 17 entries in the LMP2 category after Thursday's qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway for this weekend's 24 Hours of Daytona.

But that was mostly because co-driver Phil Hanson crashed their United Autosports Ligier LMP2 duing the morning's practice session, costing both drivers vital track time at a circuit where neither has raced before.

Long before qualifying began, team owner Zak Brown cautioned that his two entries are longshots to win the prestigious sports-car endurance race this weekend, even with former double Formula One champion Alonso behind the wheel.

United Autosports is fielding one Ligier with Alonso, Hanson and McLaren F1 reserve driver Lando Norris, and a second entry for Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer, Paul Di Resta and Bruno Senna.

"We are running two equal cars - but I know that when you have Fernando in a car, everything else becomes kind of secondary," said Brown, Alonso's F1 boss at McLaren. "I think this is going to be the most exciting 24 ever. I think this is going to be closest field.

"I think on ultimate pace, we will be a little off, but it's a long race and I am hoping we will be top-five. If it's a messy race for others, maybe a podium, but I'd be surprised if we are going away with any watches come Sunday."

Alonso signs an autograph for a fan at Daytona.Picture: John Raoux / AP

Brown juggles running United Autosport, the team he owns, with his job running one of the top teams in F1. He first announced the No.32 Ligier entry for Daytona with Owen as the anchor driver, and joked that "eight-and-a-half minutes" after Alonso finalised his 2018 McLaren deal, he was asking Brown about competing at Daytona.

A second team was formed around Alonso, who also raced in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, after Brown helped him get the drive. Alonso is trying to cross all the top races in the world off his bucket list, and after the twice-round-the-clock endurance race that begins on Saturday, Alonso will next try to put together a ride for the 24 Hours of Le Mans either in 2018 or 2019.

Daytona will be Alonso's first time racing at night, first time racing in a closed cockpit and first time competing in a major sports-car event. It's not clear yet if he'll bring the same attention to the Rolex that he did in May 2017 to Indianapolis, where he was in contention for a win until his engine blew with 21 laps to go.

'24-hour sprint race'

So far in 2018 the Cadillac teams have been the strongest entries in the prototype class, even after IMSA relaxed the rules even the field. Roger Penske is back in sports cars this year with a strong Acura program, and so much attention has been placed on reliability, that speed and flawless team performance will be key during the race.

"You used to be able to get to the front on other people's misfortunes," said Brown. "I think this is now a 24-hour sprint race and I don't think we have the ultimate sprint pace. Fernando wants to get the experience."

Alonso indeed wants something to show for this effort when the race ends on Sunday, and he's kept his sense of humour in the lead-up to the weekend. At a media event in North Carolina earlier in the week to help promote the 24 Hours of Daytona, he wouldn't say whether he would qualify the car or drive the first stint (Brown later confirmed he would qualify the car) but laughed out loud when he was asked whethr he was nervous about being woken up in the middle of the night and asked to drive at his best.

"It will be the first time," he grinned. "I'll tell you the next morning. I've done some amateur 24 hour kart races, but this is the first time for me at his level.

"We're not as competitive as we'd like, but nevertheless we'll try to put together a perfect race and, if that happens, we can get a good result."