Fernando Alonso qualifies 13th at Daytona 24 Hours

Fernando Alonso qualified 13th on his debut at the Daytona 24 Hours. Sutton Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The 2017 season for Fernando Alonso prepared him well for his first venture into the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

His one-off IndyCar race at the Indianapolis 500 taught him how to go about working with a new vehicle and a new team. His Formula One season taught him about not having the best piece of equipment underneath him.

Alonso put the United Autorsports Ligier LMP2 in the 13th spot on the grid Thursday for the 24-hour sports-car race, which begins Saturday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway.

"I was happy with the laps," Alonso said. "We still need ... to find more speed. In general, I think we did a good job."

The two-time F1 champion knew well before qualifying it would be a little bit of a struggle. The high-speed nature of the 3.56-mile Daytona circuit does not lend itself to the strengths of the team's car, but he was the best Ligier in qualifying.

"We're still learning," Alonso said Thursday. "We're still improving. ... The first couple hours of the race probably are the most difficult ones for us and then later in the 24 hours, I think we will be more comfortable and hopefully more competitive."

Renger van der Zande put the defending champion Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac on the pole for the race, nipping the Penske Acura driven by Helio Castroneves.

Williams F1 driver Lance Stroll, co-driving an Oreca LMP2 for Jackie Chan DCR Racing, watched co-driver Robin Frijins qualify the car in sixth.

"It's a long race," said Stroll, who competed in the 2016 Rolex. "A lot can happen. ... Traffic management, what it's like to race at night, all those challenges that as a rookie are very different to formula racing, so now coming back here for a second time, I feel like I'm a step ahead."

Stroll and Frijins have Felix Rosenqvist and Daniel Juncadella as their co-drivers.

Alonso will have McLaren reserve/test driver Lando Norris and sports-car driver Phil Hanson as his co-drivers. Hanson locked the brakes and wrecked during practice Thursday morning, damaging the front end of the car.

"It was fixed [for qualifying] -- the damage this morning was more aesthetics than anything else," Alonso said. "It was a little kiss on the wall. ... It was not much damage. The bodywork changed and the car feels good.

"It might not be as competitive as some other teams out there, but generally we are quite satisfied."

Because he qualified the car, Alonso will be the driver for the start of the race, according to IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship rules.

"He's here to win, we're all here to win, but I think you have to be realistic once you see the playing field. ... I don't think we have the ultimate sprint pace," said United Autosports owner Zak Brown, the chief executive at McLaren. "I think a top-five or a podium is a good result. It's not winning, but it's certainly nothing to be embarrassed about.

"Fernando wants to get the experience. We're going to go out and race for the win. I think I would be a little misleading if I sat here today, saying I think we have the same chance Cadillac and Acura have, and I don't think we do."

Alonso wanted the experience of the 24-hour race at Daytona to prepare for a potential start at Le Mans, which would be part of his quest to win the triple crown of races -- Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.

Starting fifth at Indy last year, Alonso's day ended in that race with an engine failure.

"It was really the first time I switched series and some of those first moments and those learnings that I had in Indy, they were useful now when I jumped into a prototype car," Alonso said. "Also racing in America, which is different, with the way they manage the safety car, the restart, the pit lane - everything is similar to Indianapolis here. It's not new anymore for me."

One thing new for Alonso at Daytona was trying to figure out positioning of crotch belts so they are comfortable for each of the co-drivers. They spent part of the test sessions earlier this month correcting that issue.

"It's still not perfect, but I think I can breathe now," Alonso said this week. "That's the first step."

Alonso predicted earlier Thursday that he expected not to qualify well and the team would need to execute perfectly over the 24 hours to have a good result.

"The main theme will be to execute the race properly, to have fun, to have the first experience in a 24-hour race and learn many, many new things that we will experience," Alonso said. "At the same time, we are here to race."

The United Autosports team has two cars in the field, including its one full-time car that it fields in the European Le Mans Series.

"I think our ultimate pace will be a little bit off," Brown said. "But it's a long race. I'm hoping for a top-five, if it's a messy race for others, maybe a podium. But I would be surprised if we were going away with any watches [awarded to the winners] come Sunday."