Fernando Alonso’s performance in this past weekend’s Indianapolis 500 impressed many. The Spaniard led 27 laps before his Andretti Honda engine expired with 21 laps remaining in the event. He came home 24th when the checkered flag flew from IMS, but opened a lot of eyes.
Did Alonso’s performance in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing make IndyCar look easy?
The Dude Can Drive
Fernando Alonso is one of the best race car drivers to ever hold a steering wheel, no matter what he drives. This weekend, he added IndyCar to his resume. He didn’t just add it – he excelled at it.
He led 27 laps and showed he could maneuver his Andretti Autosport Honda wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He made racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the most famous race courses in the world, in the Indianapolis 500, the most famous race in the world, look easy.
Was it easy? Absolutely not. It takes an immense amount of talent to step into an entirely new race car in, an entirely new series, in an entirely new country ,in an entirely new environment and do well. It takes another level of talent to excel in the face of adversity, and that’s exactly what the two-time Formula 1 world champion from Oviedo, Spain did this past weekend.
But he’s not alone.
I realize the equipment he was in was amongst the best in the sport. I realize this guy is one of the best race car drivers to ever live. I realize that the stage is magnified due to the gravity of the race. But with all that being said, on-track results don’t lie.
Alonso’s finish was in no way indicative of how he ran. Like I mentioned, he led over 20 laps in his first (and possibly only) IndyCar start. He was one of only a handful of cars that looked like they could grace victory lane when the checkered flag flew and be the driver to kiss the yard of bricks. But it wasn’t meant to be.
For Graham Hill, it was meant to be. Hill is the man Alonso is chasing, as he has the triple crown of racing – the Monaco GP, Indy 500 and Le Mans – and he won the 500-miler in his first ever IndyCar start back in 1966. But was Hill the anomaly?
The answer is simple: no. Besides Alonso, as recently as last year, Alexander Rossi drank the milk after he won the Indianapolis 500 in his first start. Despite being a fuel mileage win, a win is just that—a win. He was a test driver in Formula 1 who wasn’t able to provide the funding for an elite ride. So he came to IndyCar, and won quickly.
Who could forget about Juan Pablo Montoya? No, not the jet dryer. The fact that he can drive the wheels off a race car, too. JPM won in his first career Indianapolis 500 start in 2000, one year removed from his departure from the F1 ranks. JPM then tried his hand at NASCAR, came back to IndyCar and won his second 500 two years into his second tenure in the series.
Oh, and Jacques Villeneuve? He won the Indy 500 in 1995 after being two laps down in the race. That also happened to be his first season racing the IndyCar Series, following his Formula 1 stint.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe Alonso himself didn’t make IndyCar look easy. But when you look at the totality of the situation, Formula 1 drivers historically have.
Three-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton said that Alonso would be the best driver in the paddock “for sure” ahead of Sunday’s 500. And maybe he was right.
Regardless of whether or not Alonso was the best driver, he sure did put on a show. And before he left IMS, he toasted a carton of milk with the media for following him around for the past two weeks and being so gracious to a “rookie” who was experiencing something bigger than himself for the first time.
Who knows, maybe Alonso will be back again in 2018 with some unfinished business. And maybe instead of toasting a carton of milk to the media, he’ll be chugging a bottle in victory lane.
– Davey Segal
IndyCar Ain’t No Joke
I will be the first to admit that I was wrong about Alonso, he did a splendid job in the Indianapolis 500 and was way more competitive than I thought he would be. His superb performance is not an indictment of the series though.
Three-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton criticized IndyCar when he told L’Equipe, “I took a look at the qualifying results…Fernando, in his first qualifying, came fifth. Does that say something about (the level) of Indy Car? Great drivers, if they can’t succeed in Formula One, look for titles in other races, but to see him come fifth against drivers who do this all year round is…interesting.”
Formula One may have a grander history and tradition than IndyCar, but I feel that Hamilton’s comments are way off base because Indycar has become a more difficult league with far superior racing than its open wheel counterpart.
You don’t believe me? Watch the IndyCar race at Auto Club Speedway versus any Formula One race. The close-quartered, high-speed showdown that Fontana puts on is one of the best races of the year in my opinion.
In contrast, if you mention the word “overtaking” around a Formula One driver, then they have to look it up in a dictionary because it hardly exists in that league. The way that the cars qualify and get off of the grid is practically the way they finish. Hamilton is supposedly of the best drivers in the world, but he finished seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix because he struggled in qualifying and had a hard time passing anyone during the race.
The courses of Formula One are challenging and the drivers have to have a lot of talent hitting their marks lap after lap, but the same goes for IndyCar.
Alonso appeared to run well at IMS in his debut for a few reasons, and none of them cheapen the quality of racing of IndyCar.
The first reason is that Alonso is an extremely talented driver. The guy has two F1 titles and 32 grand prix wins. The transition was not a huge one, as both types of racing use similarly designed open wheel cars. They have their differences, but there are enough similarities for a great driver to make it work.
The only real change that Alonso had to get used to was driving on an oval (or whatever you call IMS) at speeds over 200 miles per hour. That is no easy task, but fortunately for the Spaniard, Indianapolis is probably the easiest track on the entire IndyCar circuit. It is not as technical as the tour’s road courses and it gets more spread out than the other ovals.
Indianapolis for IndyCar is a lot like Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway for NASCAR, it is an equalizer for the field. Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 during his foray into NASCAR, but he did not come close to winning at the other tracks he attempted because they required a lot more familiarity with the car and series.
Speaking of Andretti, Alonso had the support of a great team in his Indy 500 attempt. Andretti Autosport has won the event in three of the past four years and Alonso had all three of those drivers and their crews to lean on. That also means that he had equipment that could have carried him to victory lane.
Alonso impressed a lot of people in the Indy 500, but honestly, his performance was a bit misleading. He led early in the race and ran in the top 10 prior to his engine expiring, but I do not think that he would have finished in the top 10 either way.
While Alonso was running up front and making those passes, he was being extremely aggressive. Meanwhile, the rest of the field was pacing itself for the long haul. Many of the drivers seemed to be driving conservatively in the early stages and letting Alonso go rather than race him.
In the 20 laps or so prior to the engine blow, Alonso started to fall back, as the rest of the drivers seemed to finally decide that it was “Go Time.” Race winner Takuma Sato and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves were the two duking it out at the end, but the pair only led for a combined 26 of the 200 laps because they were biding their time and saving their stuff for the end.
Alonso certainly did a great job of keeping all four tires (or should I say “tyres”) on the road and being competitive, but to say that he could have won the race would be quite the overstatement. It takes quite a bit more experience in the series for that to happen.
Hopefully, this is not the last we have seen of Alonso in the Indy 500 and I hope that he even tries his hand at NASCAR some day. As for Hamilton and his degrading remarks, if Indycar is such a joke, then why doesn’t he come try to dominate it like he has F1 the past several years? I challenge him to put his money where his mouth is.
About the author
Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter @DaveyCenter.
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