by Jeff Pappone in Indianapolis for JA on F1
No matter what happens in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on Sunday, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso plans to walk away from the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a smile.
The two-time Formula One world champion doesn’t have a plan or clear expectations for Sunday’s 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, he just wants to soak it all in.
“Enjoy the race, enjoy the moment, live in that moment,” Alonso responded when asked what success would look like on Sunday.
“Obviously, so far we have been quite competitive — even fighting for the first row of the grid in qualifying — so I would like to remain that competitive in the race, but I don’t know maybe I will fall behind after 100 laps or whatever. I can’t be frustrated or sad at the end of the race because the whole event has been a fantastic experience, so enjoy the moment, that’s the target.”
The McLaren F1 driver who skipped the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix to try his luck in Indianapolis answered questions during the annual “Media Day” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday.
The throng of reporters crowding around Alonso during his entire one-hour appearance highlighted the magnitude of his decision to race at the famed “Brickyard.”
The question of the day was simple: Can Alonso drive the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti to the winner’s circle?
“I know this is a race that everyone has a chance of winning; it’s an unpredictable race,” he said.
“Guys who maybe start 24th can be leading after 50 laps or whatever so that’s the good thing about this race. We all have a possibility, but I think I have a lower chance than some of the big names because I am lacking experience, but if I have a chance I will go for it. I will try to compensate for the lack of experience with good motivation and racing spirit.”
Alonso’s ability to get to grips with the tricky Indianapolis Motor Speedway impressed many and earned the Formula One driver added respect among his peers. Alonso’s determination and exceptional progress served for many as clear evidence that a victory could be in the cards, although it won’t come easy.
“It will be difficult,” said three-times Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti, now an advisor for the Ganassi Team.
“There are so many guys in there who are so strong so to expect him to beat them. It is a big ask but throw some strategy in there and it could definitely happen. He’s done a fantastic job getting up to speed and understanding traffic. We know his talent level, but he’s also a very intelligent driver. You can just tell he’s put a lot of thought and preparation into coming here. I’m interested to see how Alonso will go on Sunday, but I think he’ll do fine.”
The McLaren Honda Andretti driver starts Sunday’s race in the middle of Row 2 and fifth overall after making it into the “Fast Nine” in qualifying, which is IndyCar’s equivalent of Q3.
Although that performance raised expectations among fans and media, Alonso is trying to keep it all in perspective as race day approaches.
“Until Monday, no emotions are allowed to enter your mind — the mind is focused on the race there is no room for emotions,” he said.
“I think on Sunday I will have a better picture of how big the race is and the event in general. So far we have been so focused on the practice and the qualifying and the grandstands are not full yet so I think that will change a lot on Sunday. But it is huge event.”
One area that may be a question mark is pitting under race conditions in a narrow and crowded pitlane, especially when the pace car is on track after incidents. In those periods, it is not uncommon for every car on track to dive into the pitlane simultaneously.
IndyCar pitboxes are also much closer together than those in Formula One, so getting in and out of the tight confines without incident is critical.
“Definitely, it is one of the risks in this race and we’ve seen many examples unfortunately, even last year [Andretti teammates] Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell touched when they were leading,” Alonso said.
“We need to make sure we do the pitstops at the best performance possible but obviously with a safety margin. The race is very long and we need to make sure we do the pitstops okay.”
While he doesn’t have a set plan, Alonso knows the Indy 500 will unfold in a completely different way than grands prix, where the finishing order is often determined in the first few seconds of the race. It’s all about patience in the Indy 500.
“In F1 we are used to playing all our cards in the first couple of corners because the positions are defined after that and here it is very different,” Alonso said.
“I cannot say that I will play safe at the beginning of the race because everyone will take advantage of that so I need to keep it very open. If I can be running in a comfortable group I will be happy, if I am trailing behind the group, I will be calm, and be competitive later on in the race, and if I am competitive in the beginning, I will not slow down and lose places.”
One area where Alonso has received much advice is restarts, which can go a long way to determining the winner of the Indianapolis 500. Inevitably, an incident brings out the pace car late in the race, and winning or losing often hinges on getting a good restart once it heads back into the pits.
“You have to experience it yourself and improvise a little bit when things are happening,” he said.
“I think the first couple of restarts will be the best lessons. Whatever you plan will not be like the real thing, so the first couple I will learn improve and hopefully the last couple of restarts I will be a more experienced driver.”
Although he’s enjoyed the camaraderie in the IndyCar paddock and remarked in the more friendly attitude of rivals in IndyCar, Alonso also understands that the drivers who may have been helpful up to now, won’t be as generous once the green flag flies on the 500.
“Yeah, definitely this is racing,” Alonso said. “I will not be as nice as I was in the practice either.”
by Jeff Pappone
He arrived a few minutes after the Media Day started, but then stayed late to make up the time he missed. Overall, Fernando Alonso was open, relaxed and happy to answer every question thrown his way.
Before he arrived, the anticipation in the room grew as dozens of reporters gathered around the space reserved for the two time world champion. His spot at the centre of the wall was the only one reserved for a specific driver, as the series wanted to ensure that there was enough space for all the media expected to surround the McLaren Honda Andretti driver.
As he arrived on his golf cart at the North Chalet behind the Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but stopped to sign a few autographs before entering the building. As he waded through the waiting phalanx of print, radio and television journalists, Alonso had to sit next to the table and not behind like the others because media had already staked out the spot and moved his chair.
All indications are that the Spanish driver has taken to the IndyCar scene well, engaging in a lively and wide ranging discussion.
About halfway through the session, he reached out and gently pushed a camera aside and politely asked if they could turn off the light that was shining directly in his eyes. It was not confrontational, just a request to help him be more comfortable. His press officer from Formula One did stop the proceedings once to ask the reporters encircling Alonso to give him a bit more room.
For some of the time, he sat playing with the watch he had removed from his wrist — he even dropped it once and needed a reporter to pick it up for him. He sat with his arms crossed for several minutes at a time but it was relaxed. In the end, he took questions from all sides and behind, smiling and joking as he answered.
He even commented about the increased interaction with reporters at events like Media Day, and how the IndyCar drivers often engage with fans in a way that has escaped Formula One.
“In Formula One, in the spare time when you are not in the car, you are talking with the engineers and preparing the strategy,” he said.
“The cars are very complex and you need to make sure that every detail is under control. Here because the cars are not that complex, all that extra time you spend with the fans and with the media which is a little bit better obviously than with engineers.”
The gaggle surrounding Alonso didn’t let up for any of the hour-long session with the media two or three deep and peppering him with questions in English, Spanish and Italian.
It was the polar opposite of the controlled environment of Formula One to which he’s grown accustomed where media officers guard and protect the drivers and strictly control access. Rarely would a Formula One driver be left essentially on his own to be surrounded and scrummed by dozens of journalists for an hour.
Then he was gone, slipping away in his golf cart after surviving his introduction to media American style.
Will you be watching Fernando Alonso’s attempt on the Indy 500? Has this captured your imagination?