IndyCar Drivers Go Gaga Over Alonso News

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 12 2017

IndyCar drivers are ecstatic over news that Fernando Alonso will drive for Andretti Autosport in this year’s Indy 500.

By John Sturbin |Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Verizon IndyCar Series drivers testing on Texas Motor Speedway’s repaved and re-profiled pavement Wednesday enthusiastically greeted the sensational news that Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso would be joining them for the 101st edition of the Indianapolis 500.

“Yeah, that’s cool! Big news,” said Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner and four-time series champion with Chip Ganassi Racing. “For the Verizon IndyCar Series it’s massive. So kudos to Alonso for taking on the challenge.”

Team McLaren announced overnight that Alonso, a two-time F1 World Driving Champion and three-time runnerup, will drive for Andretti Autosport in the May 28 classic at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Alonso’s INDYCAR and oval-track debut will come at the expense of a start in the Monaco Grand Prix _ F1’s crown-jewel event _ as the Spaniard looks to emulate American rookie Alexander Rossi’s improbable victory at IMS last May.

“I think it’s great,” said American Josef Newgarden, who is in his first year with series juggernaut Team Penske. “It’s awesome to see the type of hype and buzz the Indianapolis 500 gets. The 100th running was so incredible and impressive that I think a lot of people were like, well, can it keep doing that? Can we keep up the momentum?

“I think 100 percent you’re not going to see any drop in momentum. If anything it’s going to be a better show, which is hard to do after what we had last year. The Indy 500 is the greatest race in the world and I think having a team like McLaren come back and to have an entry and a driver of Alonso’s caliber come over and race with us speaks volumes to the type of race the Indianapolis 500 is. It’s one of those items that any driver in the world would be so happy to win. It’s probably one of the No. 1 Bucket List items as a driver. “

Andretti Autosport has won the 500 with five drivers _Tony Kanaan (2004), the late Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014) and Rossi (2016). Alonso will be entered in a Honda-powered Dallara. Honda, incidentally, also powers Alonso’s F1 car.

Alonso is the ninth driver to enter the 500 with an F1 world championship on his resume. Historically, Englishman Nigel Mansell’s participation in 1993 as reigning F1 world champion was the most celebrated, with European media interest at a fevered pitch. Mansell finished third as a teammate to Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 champion, 1978 F1 world champion with Lotus and father of team-owner Michael Andretti.

“I’m immensely excited that I’ll be racing in this year’s Indy 500 with McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport,” Alonso said in a statement. “The Indy 500 is one of the most famous races on the global motorsport calendar, rivaled only by the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Monaco Grand Prix.”

Alonso has 32 grand prix victories and 97 podium finishes in 275 F1 starts. Currently competing in his 15th F1 season, Alonso became the youngest champion in series history in 2005 with Renault at age 24 years, 58 days and backed it up with another title for the French team the following year.

Alonso’s bid to win the 500 as F1 champion will mirror Englishman Graham Hill’s victorious effort as a rookie in 1966. Sir Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and Nelson Piquet also drove in the 500 as one-time world champions, while Alberto Ascari, Sir Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt and Jacques Villeneuve won F1 titles after competing in the 500.

Alonso is aware he faces a daunting task at the 2.5-mile IMS oval, as he never has driven an Indy car or competed on an oval surrounded by concrete walls with SAFER Barrier protection.

“I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast,” Alonso, 35, said of the transition. “I’ve watched a lot of Indy car action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220 mph. I realize I’ll be on a steep learning curve, but I’ll be flying to Indianapolis from Barcelona immediately after the Spanish Grand Prix (May 14), practicing our McLaren/Andretti car at Indy from May 15 onwards, hopefully clocking up a large number of miles every day.

“I know how good the Andretti Autosport guys are. I’ll be proud to race with them and I intend to mine their knowledge and expertise for as much info as I possibly can.”

Will Power made a workmanlike adjustment from road and street-course ace to oval contender en route to his IndyCar Series championship with Team Penske in 2014. Power offered Alonso this bit of insight.

“The tough thing about ovals is it feels pretty comfortable at first,” said Power, a native of Australia. “It’s running in traffic, understanding the wake, understanding how to pass cars…it’s something that until you get caught-out, you don’t know.  It happens quickly and you don’t know what happened until you’ve done it a couple times.

“But you get so many miles around there (IMS during practice) and plenty of running in traffic, if he keeps it all together. The tough thing for him will be understanding the limits of the car. The thing about ovals, if you do crash it really knocks your confidence. It’s very much about confidence. He’ll need to spend a month just being smart and creeping up on it.”

Three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Team Penske said Alonso’s decision to trade Monaco for Indianapolis is a testament to the competitive quality of INDYCAR’s drivers and teams.

“It just shows that the Indy 500 is extremely special and the place to be,” said Castroneves, a native of Brazil. “That’s what it’s all about, to come and race against the best. Obviously it’s a little bit different style but who knows…I don’t know how he’s going to adapt. He might be super-comfortable with the car or he might face challenges. (The Indy) car is much lighter, (relies heavily on) downforce, different engine (twin-turbocharged V-6)…there’s a lot of technical side that is different. But at the end of the day you’re a racer, and he will have good teammates to rely on. I don’t think it’ll be any problem.”

The sampling of drivers testing TMS’ repaved and re-profiled 1.5-mile oval generally agreed that Alonso should be considered a contender for victory.

“I think he’ll have a realistic chance,” Newgarden said. “He’s going to be with a great group. Andretti Autosport’s obviously been very fast around there with this configuration of the DW12. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for him. He’s not going to be lacking in that department. He’s going to have all the resources necessary to win the race.”

Newgarden drew a comparison of sorts to NASCAR Cup regular Kurt Busch’s drive at IMS on May 25, 2014, also with Andretti Autosport. Busch finished sixth at IMS before traveling to Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., for the Coca-Cola 600. Busch, of Stewart-Haas Racing, finshed 40th when the engine in his Chevrolet failed after 271 laps in NASCAR’s longest-race.

“You know, Kurt Busch almost had more advantage because he’s an oval driver, he’s more of an oval specialist,” Newgarden said. “He’s had much more experience on those types of tracks. He’s raced at Indianapolis many, many years. Yes, it’s different cars but at least he has some familiarity to the type of racing.

“So far Alonso, just learning the oval craft and the way that you drive race cars, the way the car reacts in the air, the way your perception changes and the way your spatial awareness needs to change on an oval compared to a road-course, those are the things he’s going to have to learn and deal with. So I do think he’s going to have a bit of a challenge from that area.

“But if you look at the history of IndyCar, some drivers come over and they cope very well, very quickly with the ovals. And others don’t. So it’s hard to predict how he’s going to react to it. Maybe he takes to it like a fish out of water or maybe it takes him a little longer and he’s going to need a couple years to be successful at it. We’ll have to wait and see. I think that’s part of the fun of it, to see how he reacts.”

Reigning IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske agreed the Alonso announcement will add another layer of interest to domestic open-wheel racing.

“Obviously, the Indianapolis 500 is one of the oldest races in the world and seeing the interest from a Formula One champion _ a double world champion _ is actually exciting,” said Pagenaud, a native of France. “It’s exciting from a driver’s standpoint because we’re excited to get to race against him. That’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be a great challenge.

“But from a manufacturer’s standpoint, I think McLaren…seeing them joining the IndyCar ranks and coming to this race is very special. I think it’s showing the potential of the IndyCar Series right now and the good things that’s happening.”

McLaren has a storied history in the Indianapolis 500. Company founder Bruce McLaren fielded a car in the 1970 race, although he failed to qualify. The next year, after McLaren was killed in a crash while testing one of his Can-Am cars, Mark Donohue qualified a Penske-entered McLaren in the second position but completed only 66 laps and finished 25th. In 1972, Donohue won the 500, the first of a record 16 for Team Penske and the first of three McLaren victories at IMS. Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford won the other two, in 1974 and ’76, before securing his third Indy 500 win in Jim Hall’s Chaparral in 1980.

This appearance in the 500 will come 38 years after McLaren’s most recent attempt at IMS, and Alonso’s car will carry the same papaya orange McLaren livery. Both of Rutherford’s McLaren victories were scored in cars of this color. Alonso’s car also will carry many of McLaren’s grand prix partners as sponsors.

Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti has a link to McLaren, too. He raced for the F1 team in 1993 alongside three-time world champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil.

Dixon said he expected Alonso to be a quick study at IMS, home of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“He’s with a team that’s a proven winner and he’s walking into a good combination,” Dixon said. “I’d say Honda is a very strong package right now, too. So the stars are somewhat aligning for a great run from Fernando. All of us want to win, but he has a great shot.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 12 2017
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