Fernando Alonso rocked racing when he opted to skip the Monaco Grand Prix to run in the Indianapolis 500, but the two-time world champion’s gamble was looking good as he prepared to swap one iconic venue for another on Sunday.
The Spanish driver has been quick to get to grips with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, qualifying fifth for Sunday’s 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 to make the second row of the starting grid behind pole-sitter Scott Dixon of New Zealand.
“I want to make something clear. I am not coming for a ‘week off’ or to just have fun — I am a racer, I am coming to race,” Alonso declared on the Players Tribune website. “The Indy 500 is one of the greatest events in the sport. Drivers all over the world know this. I belong there.”
More than a publicity stunt, Alonso said, his appearance at “The Brickyard” is a crucial second step in his bid to win motor racing’s “triple crown” of the Monaco Grand Prix, which he’s won twice, Indy, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Only one driver has done it, Britain’s Graham Hill.
“To grow up as a driver and become a more complete driver you need to win the best races in the world, the most prestigious races in the world,” Alonso said. “The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world.”
Alonso’s decision to make the trans-Atlantic leap this weekend was made easier by his Clarence-Honda team’s struggles in Formula One this season.
In Indianapolis, however, his Andretti Autosport McLaren-Honda equipment gives him plenty of opportunity to win, with his own inexperience on the 2.5-mile (4km) oval one of the biggest obstacles to victory.
“The equipment is capable of winning, he has the natural talent to be very competitive, but he doesn’t have the experience,” said Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren. “But he’s very smart. He’s coming in very well prepared and the Indy 500 is a tough race, so anything can happen.”
Certainly Alonso’s rivals consider him more of a threat than most Indy newcomers.
“He’s more prepared than most rookies,” said team-mate Marco Andretti, who will start from the third row.
“He has a lot of knowledge and experience of different cars in his previous teams. He’s probably more ready than me when I started here at 19.”
Plenty can go wrong, however, over the course of 500 miles to scupper the chances of even the most competitive cars.
In a field of 33 at speeds of 380 km/h the slightest mistake can spell disaster.
‘Always a surprise’
Alonso will be up against drivers much more accustomed to oval racing. No fewer than seven former Indy 500 winners line up for the start, including Dixon, the winner in 2008, and last year’s winner Alexander Rossi — third fastest in qualifying behind Dixon and Ed Carpenter.
“The hardest part of the race is the wind, the traffic, the circumstances … The day of the race there is always a surprise for you,” Marco Andretti said.
There also remains some nagging uncertainty about the Honda engine, which have been less reliable than their Chevrolet counterparts.
Alonso himself had to switch engines just prior to a qualifying run that put him in the middle of the second row, flanked by Japan’s Takuma Sato and American J.R. Hildebrand.
“The hardest part is the race and everything that can happen in such an event: learn how to manage traffic, the little tricks for overtaking, using your car’s performance, when, why,” he said.
“All those little things that only experience can teach you. And I do not have that experience so I know I will be weaker in some aspects.”