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Can Alonso win Indy?

Can Fernando Alonso add the Indy 500 victory laurels to his F1 achievements?
By Sean Kelly
C4F1’s statistician and a U.S. resident 

Is it possible for two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso, one of the world’s best drivers but an oval racing novice, to conquer the Indianapolis 500?  Read on to find out… 

If you’re planning on watching Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 despite an otherwise tenuous interest in IndyCar racing itself, then you are one of potentially millions of people of a similar disposition this weekend.

The presence of Fernando Alonso, one of the greatest drivers in racing history, has caused an exponential jump in international interest in this year’s 500, for which Sunday’s race will represent the 101st edition since it began in 1911.

Make no mistake on this: IndyCar’s senior management and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway themselves know that this race is vitally important in shaping their future fan base.  In fact, I may even go as far as to say that this is the most important single race in the history of IndyCar.

Having been in the doldrums since a bitter and counter-productive split that resulted in two competing open-wheel series between 1996 and 2007, the reunited series is suddenly handed a golden opportunity to potentially return to the glory days of the mid-1990s, when it basked in the afterglow of another bankable F1 champion making the move Stateside.

I first started watching IndyCar the last time something close to this took place, namely when Nigel Mansell shocked us all by quitting F1 in 1992 as the new world champion to go off to America.  Although I’d watched Indy 500 highlights before, I’d never PROPERLY watched an IndyCar race until Mansell first climbed aboard his Paul Newman-owned Lola in 1993.  The cars looked broadly similar to 1980s turbo F1 cars, but that was where the similarities ended.  

Rolling starts, in-race refuelling (then, as now, banned in F1), a limit on the number of mechanics at a pitstop, full course yellows (at a time before Safety Cars became de rigueur in F1), races that could last up to 500 miles…. it appeared an alien environment, especially in a time when IndyCar races had not been freely available to European TV viewers.

In a very short space of time the series grew to rival F1, until the 1996 split ruined everything, and with F1 not racing in the US at all between 1991 and 2000, it allowed NASCAR an unhindered path to dominance in the US racing scene.  It has occupied that position ever since, but interest in stock car racing currently appears more stagnant than it ever has in my ten years of living over here.

From IndyCar’s perspective, Alonso may have parachuted in at just the right moment.  YouTube views for the open practice sessions at Indianapolis this past week peaked at almost 700% higher than 2016.  Most of this is the international (read: F1) market, curious to see how Alonso will cope with one of the most iconic challenges in all of motorsport.

The series is exponentially cheaper to enter than F1, and it has always had a very welcoming relationship with its fan base.  Perhaps because of this, some accuse F1 regulars of having an aloof attitude toward IndyCar, as though these things should be considered gauche.  I don’t find that to be the case at all – if anything, it’s the paddock hangers-on that were/are aloof.  True racers, while not perhaps watching every IndyCar race, have huge respect for the series, as illustrated by the very willingness of Alonso to risk his reputation on it.  IndyCar regulars are excited by the prospect.

“This is my ninth Indy 500” said Tony DiZinno, regular IndyCar writer with “And on the practice days there’s basically been Fernando Alonso and the other thirty-two (drivers)!

“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen.  Kurt Busch (2004 NASCAR champion and 2017 Daytona 500 winner, who made a one-off appearance in the 2014 Indy 500) is a comparison, but it didn’t have the effect that this has”.

DiZinno, who also occasionally covers Formula 1, further noted that Alonso’s general demeanour has won him friends stateside.  “He (Alonso) is rolling with every single opportunity.  He’s signing autographs, taking pictures, and embracing the (McLaren Honda Andretti) team dynamic”.

IndyCar regulars on the other side of the fence have also noted where Alonso’s presence has changed the dynamic.  Sarah Connors is an IndyCar fan and regular attendee of IndyCar and F1 races, and as an Alexander Rossi supporter even ended up in Victory Lane with the man himself after he won last year’s 500.  She too has noticed an increase in interest, albeit not at the track itself.

“We’ve been here the whole two weeks for practice and qualifying” she explained.  “Last year I had a lot of F1 friends who were more interested in the Monaco Grand Prix.  This year, everyone has been asking a lot of questions about how things work in IndyCar, and I notice a lot of the teams have been explaining those things, with the idea that there might be a lot more people watching.

“I tweeted a picture of Fernando Alonso on his skateboard and that alone received over a thousand likes, which was unbelievable…. but here (at the track), the interest is about the same honestly.  It’s the awareness from OUTSIDE the racetrack that has been a lot more intense.”

So if F1 and “European-style” racing is your regular diet, what can you expect to be different here?

Well first off, the race distance.  This is a 500-mile event, over two and a half times further than a Grand Prix distance – covered at much higher speeds.  The fastest ever F1 race was the 2003 Italian GP, which averaged just under 163mph thanks to no intervention from the Safety Car.  The fastest Indy 500 of recent years was Tony Kanaan’s 2013 triumph, at an average of 187mph – and that’s accounting for the multitude of fuel stops, which take much longer than F1 stops – and 21 laps run under full course yellow.

Secondly, there are no standing starts at Indianapolis.  Although IndyCar has experimented with them down the years, oval racing always begins with a rolling start.  This shouldn’t bother Alonso too much, as rolling starts are standard in karting.

Third, and one of the most immediately noticeable things, is that at Indianapolis the grid is arranged in rows of three, rather than rows of two.  Where once the 3 x 3 arrangement applied to all superspeedways, it is now the exclusive domain of Indianapolis.  If there’s one thing that Alonso cannot possibly train for in advance, it’s heading into turn one on lap one at 220mph in the MIDDLE of row two, with F1 alumni Takuma Sato to his left and American Indy 500 veteran JR Hildebrand to his right. 

In his recent F1 seasons with a recalcitrant McLaren, Alonso has developed a reputation as a master of gaining places on the opening lap, a key element of success in modern F1.  This is unnecessary at Indianapolis, where overtaking is far easier and the race far longer (last year it ran exactly three hours).  Patience is key.

Once safely around the first lap, Alonso will have to get comfortable to running “in the draft”, the turbulence caused by other like-minded drivers lapping in excess of 220mph.  Indianapolis is unique in the amount of practice time afforded to drivers in advance of the race – there have been no fewer than eight open sessions, lasting for up to six hours each, during which drivers have had plenty of opportunity to run their cars in a pack so see how they handle in that same turbulence that stymies racing in Formula 1.

Counter-intuitively, this means the Indy 500 is one of the easiest races at which to make your debut, and Alonso has completed more miles in preparation for this race than he managed in Formula 1 pre-season this past winter.

From trackside observations at least, Alonso has settled in like a veteran, and but for his papaya McLaren paint scheme, you’d be hard pressed to pick out the total rookie among the Scott Dixons and Marco Andrettis of the field when running in traffic.  His clear-headed demeanour was also apparent prior to qualifying, when he was heard requesting last-minute handling information from teammate Andretti’s run on the team radio immediately before his turn.

With the wall close at hand, mistakes can be brutally punished in the blink of an eye.  Former F1 driver Sebastien Bourdais discovered this in qualifying when a monumental crash landed him in hospital with hip and pelvic injuries likely to keep him out until next season.  The prospect of this means the Indy 500 is never comfortable TV viewing, but Alonso is more likely to be tripped up by innocuous mistakes.

Running off-line in the corners can put you “into the grey”, the area on which tyre marbles and dust aggregate and severely reduce grip.  Don’t be surprised to see someone – even Alonso – run slightly wide but then lazily drift into the wall.  Occasionally drivers have gotten away with this, most famously when Nigel Mansell hit the wall during the 1993 race, and still finished third.  Nobody has ever won the Indy 500 without surviving some close calls along the way.

All drivers must also learn to cope with the changing track conditions.  While Indy cars don’t run in the wet on an oval, air temperature, track temperature, and, most critically, wind direction will all change over such a long race.  The track is like a living, breathing animal, prone to changes of mood.  Adjusting the car’s settings and driving style to accommodate this is essential.

For the first half of the race – 100 laps – risk massively outweighs reward.  The remit is to simply stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap, as the almost-inevitable full course yellows will bunch the field up and instantly negate any time lost to the leader.

Many an Indy contender has been eliminated through a small mistake in this opening act, and sometimes it’s not even their fault (for instance, if they are taken out in someone else’s accident).  In this regard, Alonso’s qualifying position dramatically reduces this risk, but doesn’t eliminate it altogether, as lapped traffic will come into play.

There’s no bigger let down than spending two weeks preparing for this race only to be eliminated early, although it should be said that Alonso has become accustomed to this in F1 in recent years….

From laps 100-180, while you must continue to stay trouble-free, drivers will be looking to stay in touch with the leader(s).  Even in this phase, some things remain beyond a driver’s control.  A full course yellow coming out right after you pitted under green is the height of misfortune, but conversely it can prevent an opportunity to adopt an alternate strategy.

Last year’s winner Alexander Rossi – himself an ex-F1 driver – made the last of his EIGHT pit-stops under yellow on lap 164 of 200, right at the limit of how far the car can go on a single tank and reach the finish.  When the race resumed Rossi was a lowly ninth and seemingly not a player.  All would quickly change….

Only from lap 180 onwards does the Indianapolis 500 become a flat-out race, assuming you have the fuel (see above).  In the last four years the leader at lap 180 has only gone on to win it once (Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014), and in 2011 the late Dan Wheldon won the race by only leading the final lap, after JR Hildebrand crashed at the final corner!  An incident-free final act favours those able to concentrate on flat-out running, whereas any yellow flag period helps those who are trying to stretch their fuel to the end.

Ironically, there was no yellow flag in the final 34 laps of last year’s race, but Rossi diligently followed team instructions to drive at a certain pace and conserve fuel throughout.  With only 10 laps remaining he was running in sixth place, but every car ahead was forced to pit for a “splash-and-dash” fuel stop, leaving him in the lead with three laps remaining.

It was a lead he was not to lose, even though he was required to crawl around the final lap 40mph off the pace to reach the flag.  He crossed the line on fumes to win precisely $2,548,743 (£1,967,899) and a place in motorsport immortality.

So is it possible for Fernando Alonso, one of the world’s best drivers but an oval racing novice, to conquer the Indianapolis 500?  

This time 12 months ago Rossi was fresh out of F1 and had no previous oval experience, before becoming the ninth man to win the Indy 500 at his first attempt.  Precedent is on Alonso’s side.

There is an underlying concern, not necessarily said aloud, that an Alonso Indy 500 win may not be the best result for IndyCar, a series that will be desperate to hold on to the massive spike in interest it has experienced this month.

“If he was second” explained DiZinno, “he would have been so close and he would think ‘oh I got so close, I gotta come back and try again!,’ and that’s where the benefit would be (for IndyCar)”.

So it would be better if Alonso falls heroically short, defeated by an IndyCar regular who could then be lionised by the series?

“Yes, 100%.”

Millions will watch and wait on Sunday.