2017-05-27 10:54:02
Jumping to Indy, Fernando Alonso Says It’s ‘Part of the Adventure’

10:54, May 27 243 0

Fernando Alonso grew up in the 1990s in Spain, which then loved soccer and motorcycle racing above all other sports. So he did not see his first Indianapolis 500 until 2000, when he sat in his motor home at a Formula 3000 event in Monaco and watched Juan Pablo Montoya win at Indy.

“I didn’t get it,” Alonso, smiling, said this week in an interview in New York.

Alonso, then 18, had so many questions: What was it like to race on an oval instead of a road course? What skills did it take? How could the driver possibly make a difference? The enormous spectacle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day was especially intriguing.

“It was a huge event around the race,” he said. “When you watch on TV, you see the grandstands. You see how many people are up there in that moment. It looks huge when I saw it for the first time.”

Alonso, 35, has had a successful career in Formula One, winning 32 races over all and the championship in 2005 and 2006. He does not need an Indy 500 victory to burnish his reputation. But instead of spending this weekend at the Monaco Grand Prix, Alonso on Sunday will drive for the first time in the Indy 500 because he is a racer, and racers love challenges.

Alonso’s presence has certainly sparked interest in the race and the series. Mark Miles, the chief executive for Hulman & Company, which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series, said 2.2 million unique viewers had seen the web-streaming coverage of Alonso’s test at the speedway this month.

“It has been a sensational opportunity for more people, particularly in Europe, to pay more attention to the series,” Miles said in a telephone interview.

Alonso, who is to start fifth in the 33-car field in a Honda owned by Michael Andretti, has also been re-energized. Zak Brown, the executive director of the McLaren Technology Group, who helped get Alonso to Indy, said, “It’s every bit as cool, if not cooler, than he thought it would be.”

Marco Andretti, Michael’s son, who is to start eighth, immediately behind Alonso in the 11-row grid, said: “He’s been a fun teammate to have, very involved, very forthcoming. One thing I’ve noticed about Formula One is that you have to watch your back. Over here you work together a lot more. You don’t have to sleep with one eye open.”

The Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans had been on Alonso’s bucket list for some time. Alonso has not won a Formula One race in four years, and his McLaren-Honda car has run poorly lately, if it runs at all. His perspective has changed.

“If one driver can win Formula One, Indy 500 and Le Mans, you can prove you can adapt to any driving style in the world and be competitive against each of the specialists in that area,” he said. “To move a little out of the comfort zone was attractive as well.”

Only Graham Hill of England has won the unofficial triple crown of motorsport: the Indy 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix, which Alonso has won twice.

Alonso said that a few years ago, Oriol Servia, a Spanish driver who has competed in eight Indy 500s, had asked him if he would one day try racing on an oval.

“I’m not interested now,” Alonso said he had told Servia. “Too focused on F1.”

But McLaren continued to scuffle in Formula One this season, and Brown mentioned to Alonso that McLaren was interested in other racing ventures in North America. Bruce McLaren Motor Racing had won the Indy 500 twice — with Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and 1976.

“I said, ‘You know, I was thinking the same,’ ” Alonso said. “After my F1 career, I try a different series and try to be a complete driver, but not just a specialist in Formula One. I love racing. Any series.”

Brown called Miles and told him that Alonso was interested in racing in the Indy 500, but only for a competitive team. Miles called three teams, but none had a car for Alonso. Then Miles mentioned his predicament, without revealing Alonso’s name, to Stefan Wilson.

Wilson, a 27-year-old British driver who ran in his first Indy 500 last year, was scheduled to compete for Andretti Autosport at Indy. Wilson’s older brother, Justin, a Formula One and Indy-car driver, was killed in a 2015 race. Miles said Wilson had given up the ride, in part, because his family planned to move to Colorado to be closer to Justin’s widow, Julia.

After sleeping on the idea, Alonso decided to skip the Monaco race for Indy.

“We were not fighting for the world championship, and we were underperforming with the engine we have,” Alonso said. “I do not have high expectations, but if I am able to drive the car I never had even tested, the experience, maybe it’s nice.”

Wilson plans to return to the Indy 500 in 2018, so this ride is strictly a one-off for Alonso, who said he planned to concentrate fully on Formula One next year.

But Miles made it clear that Alonso had been serious about this venture, hopping from his Formula One responsibilities to North America to observe races and drive in a race simulator.

“He’s doing this to win the race,” Miles said.

Brown said: “He knows Indy can bite at any moment. He’s very respectful.”

Alonso acknowledged that his lack of experience was his biggest concern.

“But I’m here to learn,” he said. “I’m here to discover everything. That’s part of the adventure.”

Alexander Rossi, a rookie who came over from Formula One, won the Indy 500 last year.

Rossi, another Andretti Autosport driver, said of Alonso: “It’s been pretty cool to work with him and see how he goes through the process, a new skill set. I knew he was going to be quick — there was never a question about it. He’s adapted very well to it.”

Through nearly 500 practice laps — no two the same, he said — Alonso has learned how to guide his racecar through left-hand turns, knots of traffic and the capricious Indiana winds. All that remains is to get through what he said would be the longest race of his career. This time, he said, much of Spain will be watching.

“I don’t know the tactics, the little tricks you can put together at the end of the race,” he said, “but I will try to drive as fast as possible, try to use my intuition in what I do in each moment.

“I know it may happen that I’m missing the experience in crucial moments of the race,” he continued. “But this race is unpredictable. That little chance you have of winning keeps your motivation all week long and all race long.”