Fernando Alonso passes first Indy 500 driving test at the Brickyard | Richard Williams

McLaren’s No1 driver seemed to enjoy a few day away from his F1 purgatory at the world-famous oval in readiness for Memorial Day weekend

Fernando Alonso smiled as he got out of the cockpit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday. That was good to see. A hundred laps of the two-and-a-half-mile high-speed oval had given him all the evidence he needed that driving a racing car could still be a fun thing to do.

A couple of weeks ago, fed up with waiting for McLaren-Honda to give him a competitive Formula One car, Alonso announced that he intended to skip the Monaco Grand Prix – a race of supreme commercial importance to all F1 teams and their sponsors – on 28 May in order to compete for the first time in the Indianapolis 500, which occupies the same date.

For the team, the decision to give their consent – and even to back his entry – meant keeping their No1 driver happy. For Alonso, it offers a break from his F1 purgatory and a chance to make his mark in another arena. For the Indy 500, his arrival is the best thing since the wave of publicity generated in 1993 when Nigel Mansell, as the newly crowned F1 champion, switched codes and came within one botched late-race restart of winning the 500 at his first attempt.

On Sunday night, after the latest McLaren humiliation in Sochi, when his car broke down on the way to the starting grid, Alonso headed straight to Indianapolis. And on Wednesday, in a very smart promotional coup, anyone around the world with internet access could watch several hours of live YouTube transmission devoted to his first outing on an oval track.

A private session had been set up for the rookie orientation programme which all those new to the race, even 35-year-old two-time F1 champions, are required to complete. Waiting for him at the otherwise deserted track were an orange Dallara-Honda and a crew from Andretti Autosport, the team run by Michael Andretti, who is the son of the former world champion and Indy winner Mario Andretti and was himself briefly an F1 driver with McLaren in 1993. Twelve months ago the team pulled off a surprise victory with the rookie driver Alexander Rossi, and Alonso will be part of their six-car entry for this year’s race.

Wednesday’s activities gave the answer to those wondering whether anyone would want to turn on the television to watch a single car going round an otherwise deserted track consisting of four left-hand turns, two long straights and two short ones, on a dull weekday morning with no spectators in the vast grandstands. But some two million people apparently did. “Thanks for taking time off work today,” one of the commentators said.

Fernando Alonso gets some tracks miles completed in front of the empty stands at the Brickyard oval.
Fernando Alonso gets some tracks miles completed in front of the empty stands at the Brickyard oval. Photograph: Darron Cummings/AP

This was, in effect, a driving test. To meet the orientation requirements, Alonso had to complete 10 laps at an average speed of between 205-210mph, then 15 at 210-215mph, and finally 15 more at 215-220mph. Observers would be assessing not just speed but consistency and control. During his second stint, Alonso reeled off five consecutive laps in the tiny margin between 219.345mph and 219.503mph. “That’s a race pace, right there,” Mario Andretti declared, watching from the TV suite. “He’s the real deal,” said his son.

It might be imagined that the Indianapolis oval could offer little in the way of a challenge to a man used to testing his skills on the varied layouts of Spa, Monza and Monaco. But conquering the Brickyard – nicknamed after its original track surface – is more than just a matter of pressing the pedal to the metal and driving round in circles for three hours, with a few stops for fuel and tyres on the way. That’s why they give rookies a test. Alonso will have to learn about trimming his car to handle the variations in wind speed and direction and barometric pressure that can radically affect the car’s behaviour, and about running in heavy traffic through the banked turns.

He will discover, as Mansell did, that rolling restarts after yellow-flag periods are ferociously and sometimes decisively competitive affairs. Perhaps the only easier aspect will be pit stops lasting seven or eight seconds, compared with the two and a half seconds it takes an F1 crew to change all four wheels. “He’ll have time to eat a sandwich,” Mario Andretti observed.

For the purist, the sight of a great driver reeling off the laps while getting to grips with a new challenge was a compelling one, and not without incident. Having twitched visibly when a pigeon flew across his path on the main straight early in the day, he managed to hold the car rock-steady at around 240mph during his last run when a brace of them made simultaneous contact in a sudden explosion of feathers.

Several F1 champions have measured themselves against this great American institution. Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi all won the race. Others, including Juan Manuel Fangio and Jochen Rindt, never felt comfortable there. Ayrton Senna tested an Indy car in Arizona in 1992 but left it at that. As one of the two or three most gifted F1 drivers of his generation, Alonso is certainly capable of joining the winners, in partial compensation for the world titles he has so far failed – through poor career decisions – to add to those he secured in 2005 and 2006.

The all-orange paint job of his No29 car this week evoked that of the vehicle with which, back in 1976, the US driver Johnny Rutherford gave McLaren their first victory in the Indy 500. The new machine looked great, not least because the current technical regulations wisely prohibit the absurdly elaborate aerodynamic devices that clutter the outline of today’s F1 machines.

As with the machinery, so with the ambiance, which has none of F1’s preciousness and pomposity. Alonso seemed to like it. “They ask you if you’re ready inside the car, you say yes, you switch on the car and you go,” he reported. The TV crew was allowed to stay close, capturing his first informal debriefs with the team. The decision to put the session live on the internet, and the intimacy of the coverage, made a telling contrast with F1’s historic policy of strictly limited access, mandated by Bernie Ecclestone.

There will be a lot for Alonso to absorb during the 500’s qualifying week, which starts on 15 May. If he gets through it, he will be given a memorable welcome by the 400,000 spectators gathered at the Brickyard on the Memorial Day weekend. But he will never forget the day he ran there for the first time, all alone, with the world watching.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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