The plan to make Fernando Alonso a 35-year-old rookie Indy 500 champion

The double F1 world champion has much to learn as he prepares to make his IndyCar debut. But his team have a proven record of crossover success

From now until this weekend, when the grid order is set for the 101st Indianapolis 500, most of the talk emanating from the track will be about practice – a discipline measured on the speed charts and through the marks on the Brickyard’s barrier walls. Of the 30-odd drivers hoping to challenge for the Borg-Warner trophy when the race goes green on 28 May, none will face more scrutiny than Fernando Alonso – who is skipping this year’s Monaco Grand Prix to try for the second stage of motorsport’s triple crown.

Maybe that scrutiny is a bit harsh for a rookie, especially one who has never raced on an oval. But Alonso, a two-time F1 world champion, is a singular breed of racer– “one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy winner, told the Guardian. Alonso’s talent shone through during his 4 May test at Indy – an internet-breaking event that, apart from a double aviaricide, was flawless.

The success, as with most things in racing, was in the set-up. Andretti Autosport, which guided Nascar champion Kurt Busch to a sixth-place finish at Indy in 2014 and former F1 driver Alexander Rossi to the victory lane just last year, has proven a prime shop for Indy’s crossover episodes. Marco Andretti, one of three veteran IndyCar drivers who Alonso now counts as a team-mate, broke-in the Spaniard’s car in testing. After swapping seats Alonso didn’t really have to concern himself with much other than getting up to speed, and topping out at around 220mph during his 110-lap session. He was the only driver on Indy’s two and a half-mile expanse, after all.

Now comes the hard part. There will be traffic to reckon with (and a spotter in his ear, talking him through), pit stops to make (not just for tires but fuel too), and rolling restarts that must be timed to perfection. The fickle central Indiana weather may well play havoc with the 35-year-old rookie’s car too.

“The set-up is extremely important because the differences in Indy is just milliseconds,” says Alonso, who binge-watched old Indy races to help his preparation. “I think to set up the car differently, in the different parts of the race with different wind directions, with different fuel loads, tire degradation — there are many things that you need to make small adjustments, apparently, that I have no idea [about].

“So I definitely need to learn those things, and to learn it alone will take two years. To learn it with some help, it will take six months. But I have two weeks. So I will need a lot of help.”

Luckily, he can lean on De Ferran, who has a big part in Alonso’s switch – along with Zak Brown, an LA-born racing executive with a soft spot for the Indy, and is now executive director at McLaren. Furthermore, the Andretti team’s relationship with Honda, which is vastly more competitive in IndyCar than in F1 at the moment, paved the way for De Ferran – a Honda technical consultant – to join Alonso’s pit box as coach.

This isn’t De Ferran’s first time in such a role. Not long after retiring from driving, he spent two years with BAR-Honda as sporting director. Early in his Honda tenure, De Ferran mentored a young racer named Simon Pagenaud – last season the Frenchman ran away with the IndyCar championship while driving for Team Penske.

The Alonso assignment completes a circle for De Ferran. He remembers stealing away to the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix and marveling at the Spaniard – then a teenage driver for Minardi. “I went to a corner [at the track] and I’m standing by myself, just taking it all in. And this guy comes around, you know, with this frankly not-great car. And I’m watching him, and I’m thinking, Jesus, who is that? It was clear that his technique, his car control, how hard he was pushing – you were talking about a special talent.”

Still, steering an F1 car – more like a supercomputer on wheels – is a wholly different proposition than racing an Indy car, which is relatively primitive by comparison. What’s more, adds 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, another Alonso team-mate: “It’s no secret that Formula 1 has much higher safety standards. The tracks have a lot of run-off. You have less of a shot of hitting a wall. But when it comes to open-wheel racing, when it comes to closed-circuit racing in general, oval racing in IndyCar is by far the most dangerous there is.”

The warm reception to Alonso’s crossover to the IndyCar paddock stands in marked contrast to reactions among Alonso’s F1 peers, which are easily summed up in a simple, Seinfeldian phrase: good luck with all that. “I’d take [the] Daytona 500 over Indy,” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo said after Alonso’s Indy plans were announced in April. “Indy kinda scares me, actually.” Mikhail Aleshin, a fourth-year IndyCar veteran from Moscow, isn’t surprised: “Some of the drivers who don’t want to do the Indy 500,” he says, “they just have small balls. I think that’s the only explanation.”

Alonso, though, not only has the nerve, but one skill in particular that should help a smooth transfer. “Just watching him race in Formula 1,” says De Ferran, “it’s clear to me that he’s very good at wheel-to-wheel racing. Makes good choices. Positions himself well. Knows when to attack, when not to attack. He’s got a very good strategic mind. That is probably going to serve him well.”

The triple F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, after expressing his own reservations about Alonso’s Indy trip, nonetheless pronounced his former McLaren team-mate “the best driver in the [IndyCar] paddock.” That’s not hyperbole. Neither is this: he could very well etch his name on the Borg-Warner trophy. Sure, he’s the rookie in a crowd that is likely to include at least six Indy 500 winners. But upsets at the Brickyard are not unprecedented. Remember: Rossi – who had a modest F1 record and only one oval start to his name – was the one guzzling milk at the end of last year’s race. Alonso is well positioned to win too. It’s just going to take practice. Miles and miles and miles of it.


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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