Two-time Formula 1 champion, Fernando Alonso, has immersed himself in learning how to drive on the most famous oval in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The incredibly talented Spaniard should be okay – as long as he doesn’t turn right.
For Alonso to compete at the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, something the 35 year-old has had on his bucket list along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans (which he feels will make him a complete driver), some factors had to fall into place.
Bernie Ecclestone (who would likely prevent an F1 driver from switching series), is no longer the head of F1 after Liberty Media recently bought it.
American Zak Brown, now Executive Director of McLaren Technology Group, wants McLaren to return to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Brown was instrumental in finding a ride for Alonso through his connections and is allowing his No. 1 driver to miss F1’s marquee event, the Monaco Grand Prix.
Honda, which has struggled to provide a reliable and competitive engine to McLaren this season, hopes to keep the F1 ace on board during its continued development. For the 500, Alonso is competing with the Honda-powered team of Andretti Autosport, which won the 100th Indianapolis 500 with Alexander Rossi.
In preparation for his first time competing on any oval, Alonso has studied videos of past races and spent time in Honda’s simulator. But there is no substitute to being in the actual race car. Michael Andretti is his race strategist, and Gil de Ferran is acting as his driver coach.
Alonso’s first impression when he saw the Indianapolis track was that it was a lot narrower than he expected. He could not believe that the cars start the race three abreast. The 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway has 50 foot wide straights and 60 foot wide turns. But the Spaniard is in for a big surprise during the race; restarts could be four and five cars wide.
On May 3rd, Alonso had a private test during which time he breezed through his Rookie Orientation program by completing a set number of laps in three increasing speed phases. After Marco Andretti had set the car up for him, Alonso completed 110 circuits with a top speed of 222.548 mph.
“The circuit looks so narrow when you are at that speed,” commented Alonso. “When you watch on television or when you are in the simulator, it seems bigger and easier. When you are in the real car it’s very narrow (the track) so I was trying different lines.
“I knew that Marco was flat out in Turn 1, so I said, I will do flat out now in Turn 1 because the car is able to do it. So I arrived at Turn 1, and I was convinced 100 percent that I was taking it flat out. But my foot was not flat out. It had its own life and was not connected to my brain. By the second or third lap I was able to do it. It was definitely a very good feeling to be able to feel the respect of this place, the car, and of the speed. It’s something that for any racing driver, it’s just pure adrenaline.
“The Indy car is definitely different to drive. Obviously, if you develop your whole career in Formula One in Europe, you come here to oval racing, the car felt unnatural to drive because the car turns left by itself. That’s a little bit strange when you approach turn one on the first lap. I’ve had good preparation in the simulator and a lot of information from the team.”
What’s so very different about IndyCar racing from F1, is that Alonso has teammates that cooperate by sharing data, compare notes and ideas, and work together as a group to beat the other drivers. And, there are a lot of off-track commitments and fan access to the garages and pit lane that is not allowed in F1.
In addition to navigating four left turns, each different based on wind conditions, Alonso will have to learn how to make adjustments to maintain the balance of the car using his in cockpit controls, weight jackers and sway bars, as the fuel load of over 160 lbs. burns off.
“In this business, at this level, you have to learn by fire,” explained Marco Andretti. “We can only tell him so much. Definitely trusting your butt still sticks out in my mind, especially in places like this. You have to know it’s loose (the car) before it’s loose.”
To be competitive, Alonso will have to figure out how to set up for passes, remember IndyCar procedures such as pit entry rules, and spend three times longer in a pit stop than what he is used to in F1. He cannot practice race restarts and will discover no one has any friends the last 20 laps of the event.
“The most difficult thing will be the race itself,” explained the very methodical Alonso. “All the things that happen in the race such as running in traffic, learning the little tricks to overtake, the place to overtake, how not to lose time in those maneuvers, and how to use the performance of your car in which moment of the race. You feel the car, how it handles behind another car, and how close you can be to the other car in the corners.”
Alonso has been an excellent student methodically learning step by step. But it is possible to have information overload. Landing in the top nine of 33, with a four-lap average (10 miles) in qualifying of 231.300 mph, he placed in the middle of the second row (fifth).
The 2003 Indy 500 winner, Gil de Ferran, who is helping Alonso prepare for his first oval race, had his own lessons to learn when he first competed at Indianapolis.
“It was difficult to really understand, when I first came over (from F1), how complex setting up a car for the oval actually was,” said de Ferran. “I was able to be relatively competitive at the time. But really understanding what I needed out of the car and what changes needed to happen in the car for me to be competitive over a stint (using up the fuel), over a race, and what will happen at the end of the race, was a little more complex. It took me a little bit of time to understand how not to destroy the tires. I’m trying to bring to Alonso awareness of the nuances about what he’s about to encounter so he can think about it ahead of time.”
Alonso is well prepared for this race, but first, he must make it to the final laps without incident to battle for the win.
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