Fernando Alonso's Indy 500 debut was superb but his engine let him down again

The Spanish driver’s aggression shone through at the Brickyard. He will surely be back for another shot at the second leg of motor sport’s triple crown

More than a few questioned Fernando Alonso’s decision to skip the Monaco Grand Prix for the Indianapolis 500 when the double Formula One champion announced plans to try for the second leg of motor sport’s triple crown last month. But when that day finally came on Sunday, it was clear that he had made the right choice – even after finishing 24th in a race won by Japan’s Takuma Sato. “If we put aside the last 20 laps, which were a massive disappointment,” said McLaren-Honda team boss Zak Brown, “if we reflect back on the past month, it was outstanding. Fernando didn’t put a wheel wrong. [He] showed what a world class world champion he is today.”

Really, Alonso’s decision was validated well before the green flag flew at the Brickyard, in the day’s Monaco results— another scoreless disappointment for McLaren-Honda. Not even the return of Jenson Button, who was coaxed out of retirement to substitute in for Alonso, could spare the team a familiar fate. “I didn’t miss Monaco,” Alonso told reporters after his drive on Sunday.

There was no reason to. Early on, Alonso’s Andretti Autosport car seemed to provide the escape from his Formula One woes that he had hoped. After starting on the second row, in fifth, and dropping to ninth in a fuel mapping miscommunication, Alonso charged past 2016 race winner Alexander Rossi for the lead. He passed cars at will, from any line on the track he chose, and executed with precision in the pits. Overall he led 27 laps, the third most of any driver on Sunday afternoon. “It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500, you know,” Alonso said. “I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 [his car’s number] on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if Zak or someone from the team was taking a picture because I want that picture at home.”

Alonso also caught his share of luck on an afternoon that saw almost a third of the pack crash out of contention. By far the most frightening incident happened on lap 53, when British driver Jay Howard bounced off the turn two barrier and down into the nosecone of pole sitter Scott Dixon.

His car pirouetted through the air, bounced side-first off the opposite barrier and punched a massive hole in the inside safety fencing; the breathless affair halted the race for 19 minutes. (Amazingly, both drivers walked away from the crash unharmed.) Three more pile-ups followed, the last involving five cars. Michael Andretti, Alonso’s team owner, had no explanation for the rash of impacts other than hard, intense racing.

Few challengers could match Alonso’s aggressiveness. Through lap 130, he seemed for all the world like the upset favorite. But then that momentum was undercut when his team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay blew an engine and forced a pair of restarts that dropped Alonso as far down as 10th. Then as he charged back to the front, Alonso saw his own engine give out.

His afternoon done, Alonso climbed out of his car and slipped off his racing gloves — a sight all too familiar to regular Formula One watchers. (And perhaps a moment foretold a week earlier, when his engine was sending out smoke signals after qualifying). But instead of the usual grumbling, Alonso was greeted with cheers and high-fives. He spent the rest of the race rooting for Sato, his Andretti team-mate and former F1 cohort. “We’ve been sharing the last two weeks all the meetings in the morning, the meetings in the afternoon,” he said of his Andretti routine. “Takuma was a lot of help, coming from F1. The last two laps I was on my knees really pushing for Sato. I was extremely happy for the final result.”

What’s more, Alonso’s effort brought its own sense of satisfaction, to say nothing of a mark to improve upon. Just before adjourning his post-race news conference, he raised a carton of milk to the reporters who have dutifully chronicled his exploits over the last two weeks, riffing on Indy’s time worn Victory Circle tradition. “I didn’t win,” he joked. “But I will drink a little milk.” Doubtless his thirst won’t be truly quenched until he conquers this place.


Andrew Lawrence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The GuardianTramp

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