Alonso walking 'tightest of tight ropes' at Indy 500
This Sunday, the two-time Formula One world champion will line up on the grid at the Indianapolis 500 with a chance of writing his name into American motor-racing folklore.
Alonso, who is skipping this year’s Monaco Grand Prix to race at The Brickyard, will start from fifth place on the grid after two impressive qualifying sessions over the weekend.
On Saturday, he was seventh quickest (out of the 33 drivers) in his McLaren Honda Andretti booking a place in Sunday’s “fast nine” pole shootout (the equivalent of F1’s Q3) where he moved up two places, clocking an average speed of 231.300 mph (372.241 kph) over four laps — pole sitter Scott Dixon of the Chip Ganassi Racing team averaged 232.164 mph (373.631 kph).
“I’m definitely happy with qualifying at the end and to be able to compete here,” Alonso said.
“Once you secure the ‘fast nine,’ it doesn’t change too much — you know where you start. I’m happy with the performance.”
Alonso’s rapid progress and commitment since announcing he was racing last month has drawn widespread praise from his team, IndyCar fans, rival drivers and former champions.
“One of the things I’ve seen with Fernando is his attention to detail,” three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti told CNN.
“Most drivers on the grid are (attentive) — you have to be — but he’s really been studying for the Indianapolis 500, watching old races, talking to his teammates.”
Franchitti says he was “amazed” at how quickly Alonso got up to speed in his rookie test at the start of this month but new and daunting challenges still await the Spaniard.
“The toughest thing I found at Indianapolis was how to race,” Franchitti says. “To run on your own is not that difficult it’s when you get in a pack and how to position your car, how you time your passes, keep your momentum up — some of that comes from experience.”
Alonso is widely regarded as F1’s most complete driver but the 35-year-old will need to bring all of his famed racing ability to bear at Indianapolis — he has never raced on an oval track.
“When you are driving a road course there is a 190 mph corner, a 60 mph hairpin so you’ve got to have a set-up that works in all those ways,”Franchitti says.
“At Indianapolis you work in a very narrow band (of speed) and there is absolutely no compromise with it.
“What he’s gonna learn is that mistakes are punished. I hope he doesn’t learn that, but he is on the tightest of tight ropes with Indianapolis. You cannot go over the limit.”
Former F1 driver Max Chilton, who now races for Chip Ganassi Racing, also knows only too well the dangers at Indianapolis — the Briton smashed into the barriers during qualifying last year.
Alonso hasn’t put a foot wrong so far — but how might he fare next weekend?
“He’s up against it, but he’s a multiple world champion,” Chilton told CNN.
I’m a huge fan of Fernando, I always have been and it’s great for him to come over, but there’s is a famous saying that ‘the race will pick the winner.'”
“You can be the fastest driver out there 10 years straight and you won’t win the race. I have no doubt he’s going to be quick enough, but you need everything to fall in to place.”
Whether he’s pouring milk over his head or not at the end of 200 grueling laps, Alonso will sample an atmosphere unlike anything he has experienced in F1 — an estimated 300,000 spectators will attend the race.
“The atmosphere is incredible at Indianapolis,” says Franchitti, champion in 2007, 2010 and 2012.
“I didn’t actually appreciate it until I retired … my job before that was to completely block all that out so to actually enjoy it was something incredible.
“You realize what a big event it is, and when you win it you understand what it means to the team you worked with as well — whether it’s the guy building the engines, the mechanics on the car.”
For Alonso, who has been starved of F1 success in recent seasons in an under-performing McLaren car, the Indy 500 gives him a genuine shot at glory that would otherwise be unavailable.
“There are 33 cars on the grid and around 20 of those have a realistic shot of winning that race,” Franchitti says.
“You will not know until the cars leave Turn 4 on the last lap who has got it — they might be racing to the line!”
If Alonso does manage to pull it off he will become the first F1 world champion to win the race since Jacques Villeneuve 22 years ago.
“Indy is a strange beast,” Villeneuve says. “You can win it with speed and talent like (Juan Pablo) Montoya did in 2015 or you can have a little bit of luck — like (Alexander) Rossi did last year when it goes well with the fuel.
“You have to be there for the whole race. You have to bide your time and throw the dice. It could go his way.
“He’s probably with the best team to come as a one off, basically. The Andretti team have done that in the past are they are very good at having the extra car and making that extra car run fast.”
The odds may be stacked against Alonso — only nine rookies have won the Indy 500 in its 100-year history — but his commitment will be unswerving.
“I am a racer — I always have been and I always will be.”