Making history is the target for Fernando Alonso when he takes to the track for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday afternoon. The Spaniard wants a win at the Brickyard to take him a step closer to claiming motor racing’s triple crown but Indy is such a formidable challenge just making it to the finish on his first attempt would be an achievement.
One of his team-mates is also making his Indy 500 debut but for Britain’s Jack Harvey just taking to the track alongside his childhood hero is the stuff of dreams.
Alonso has dominated the headlines around Indy this year and ducking out of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix to race with the Andretti team, heartily tired of his uncompetitive McLaren, was a PR masterstroke. Already a winner at Monaco, Alonso has made clear his desire to add Indy and Le Mans to the tally and match Graham Hill, the only driver to have won all three.
Alonso’s decision to switch series was unusual enough to garner huge attention. For Alonso’s rookie test at the Brickyard, more than two million fans tuned in to watch the live streaming, keenly aware of the task facing Alonso and Harvey. Dismissing the 500 miles of super speedway as simply turning left for 200 laps is a nonsense. Anyone who finally gets to swig from the bottle of milk and take the pace car home will have truly earned it.
Sébastien Bourdais, a former F1 driver and now a multiple Champ Car champion, knows his way round an oval but he crashed in qualifying and sustained multiple fractures. The cars run through the turns with entry speeds of over 230mph with as little downforce as possible. It is a dangerous combination. Across the 2.5-mile lap the characteristics of the corners, all with the same degree of banking and of the same length, differ widely. On entry to the first one cannot see through the corner and the rear end moves around. At two, unprotected by stands, the wind plays a role in affecting the delicate balance required. On the outside of all of them is the wall, which is close enough to make drivers hold their breath when it comes up close.
Alonso has taken to Indy cars well, while acknowledging the challenge. “It’s the only place where you are here for two weeks, at a four-corner circuit, and you never repeat two laps in exactly the same conditions, in the same wind, the same traffic,” he said. “Every lap you are out there, you need to keep learning.”
He was quick in practice, had a shot at pole but for a mechanical problem and starts from fifth on the grid on Sunday. And as the rookie Alexander Rossi proved last year, anyone can win this race if still in the mix come the final 50 laps. Alonso faces a tough field: there are seven previous winners on Sunday’s grid.
Among the field is the 24-year-old Harvey, who has made his debut at Indianapolis with less fanfare, but it has been an equally special experience. “I’ve always been aware of it because it’s one of the biggest races in the world,” he says. “What I didn’t understand was what it represented to people in America, the history, the prestige. It gave me goosebumps, it’s extra special. When they say it’s the greatest spectacle in racing I feel like it is. If you win the race, you’re part of history; its significance is contagious. You want to be part of it.”
Harvey’s journey to the race is familiar. Moving through karting and single-seaters, he raced and beat the current Formula One driver Carlos Sainz Jr in three different categories before the money ran out in his endeavours to reach F1. A switch to the US followed and in 2014 and 2015 he was runner-up in the Indy Lights championship. Finding backing continued to be a problem and so he leapt at the chance for a one-off drive this year at Indy with Andretti.
Sharing a garage with Alonso was more than he could have hoped for. “He really was a childhood hero of mine,” he says. “I remember cheering for him. Being able to be his team-mate and something of an equal in a similar situation in that it is both of our first 500s is incredibly special for me.”
Harvey, too, was reminded of the risks with a crash in practice and is conservative in his targets, aiming to take the best rookie spot (a task that would require him to finish higher than Alonso at the very least) but he knows that being in the mix is all important. “Absolutely I can win,” he says. “If everything falls your way, you can win the race. Alexander showed last year that anything is possible if you are still running at the end.”
Harvey will start from 27th on the 32-car grid, from where everything is up for grabs at the Brickyard. “Everybody has the opportunity to win and everybody hopes it might happen to them,” he says. “If it comes my way I will take it.”
That is a commitment that one can guarantee is strongly shared by his childhood hero.