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Alonso Gets A Small Taste Of The Indianapolis 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 29 2017

Fernando Alonso didn’t win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday but he spent a lot of time at the front of the field. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Surrounded by media and assorted gawkers post-race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he raised the milk and offered a toast.

Takuma Sato after winning Sunday’s 101st running of the Indianapolis 500? Nah, Sato and his Andretti Autosport teammates were out kissing the bricks at the start/finish line after his scintillating victory over three-time race champion Helio Castroneves. Earlier, Sato had taken the traditional swig of cold milk from a bottle in Victory Circle, before pouring most of the contents onto his red Firestone hat and face.

Wrapping up a near-perfect Month of May, Fernando Alonso punctuated his Fourth Floor media center presser by coyly pulling out a cardboard pint carton of milk.

Last thing. Thank you for all media,” Alonso said with a grin. “I didn’t won, but I will drink a little bit of milk. You follow me for two weeks every single minute, but I really enjoy. Thanks for the welcoming. See you in Austin.”

The latter was a reference to Alonso’s next scheduled race in America, Formula One’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas set for Oct. 20-22. Alonso will contest that event, Round 17 of the globetrotting FIA Formula One World Championship’s 20-race schedule, as lead driver at McLaren F1 Honda, his “real job” with the organization that allowed the 35-year-old Spaniard to skip Sunday’s prestigious Monaco Grand Prix in order to compete in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“Compete” is an understatement. Belying his status as an oval-track rookie, Alonso plotted and schemed and timed passing moves with the expertise expected of a two-time F1 World Driving Champion. A blown engine in his papaya orange No. 29 McLaren-Honda fielded by team-owner Michael Andretti relegated Fernando to a 24th-place finish after he officially had logged 179 of 200 laps.

However, Alonso led his first oval-track race four times for 27 laps, trailing only surprising

Driver Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti toast their victory in the 2017 Indy 500.

contender Max Chilton of Chip Ganassi Racing (race-high 50 laps-led) and 2014 Indy 500 champion/Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay (28) in that category.

But for the mechanical failure, the Month of May could not have played out any more scripted for Alonso and California native Zak Brown, new executive director of McLaren Technology Group and Fernando’s patron saint in this adventure.

“Yeah, obviously disappointed not to finish the race because every race you compete, you want to be at the checkered flag,” said Alonso, who started fifth and led for the first time on Lap 37. “Today was not possible. Anyway, was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself. I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an Indy car.

“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500, you know? One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the No. 29 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.

“Thanks to INDYCAR, amazing experience. Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

Alonso was running eighth when _ without warning _ his Honda power plant expired with a groan down the Speedway’s long front stretch. As Alonso guided his disabled ride off and into a grassy area, the majority of fans stood and applauded and cheered his spirited effort.

“If we put aside the last 20 laps, which is a massive disappointment, if we reflect back on the past month, it was outstanding,” said Brown, who replaced Ron Dennis at the McLaren helm last Nov. 21. “Fernando didn’t put a wheel wrong. Showed what a world-class world champion he is today.

Andretti, congratulations to Michael for winning. He did an outstanding job, as did everyone at McLaren. Just very disappointed for Fernando and everyone at McLaren to see him driving down the front straight with smoke coming out of the back of the car. Just stunned, but this is racing. It’s 500 miles. I think we’ll look back on the month and feel very happy with what we achieved.”

With Sato’s upset win by 0.2011-seconds, Andretti Autosport now has won three of the last four Indy 500s and five overall since first scoring with the late Dan Wheldon of Great Britain in 2005.

On cue, Alonso also saluted Sato, the journeyman 40-year-old native of Tokyo who became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500. Yeah, congratulations to Sato San, to Andretti,” said Alonso, one of six drivers entered by Mikey, son of 1969 Indy 500 champion Mario and a former McLaren driver. “We have been sharing the last two weeks all the meetings in the morning, the meetings in the afternoon. Takuma was a lot of help, coming from F1. The last two laps I was on my knees really pushing Sato. Extremely happy for the final result.”

Just as quickly, Alonso expressed appreciation to Brown for his key role in suggesting and implementing the plan that gave Fernando the opportunity to chase the second leg of his personal Triple Crown. Already a two-time winner of F1’s crown jewel event through the streets of Monte Carlo, Alonso is seeking to add victories in the Indy 500 and endurance sports car racing’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, France, to his already bulging resume.

My physiotherapist, Zak,” Alonso said with a laugh while acknowledging Brown, seated to his right. “I think McLaren as a company, the success in Indy car in the past, the success in Formula One, and now the road cars, the level they reach, we need to feel very proud as racing fans, as drivers, as journalists, to have McLaren here. I think it’s a very good news for the sport. This is only thanks to Zak.”

As he had warned during any number of pre-race interviews, Alonso said his lack of experience in the nuances of oval-track racing _ the rolling start, restarts, pit stops _ were major challenges.

I mean, obviously there were some better moments than others on the race, but I felt competitive all through the race,” Alonso said. “I think Helio and some of the guys, they’ve been very lucky with the yellow flag. I think with a trouble-free race, Ryan, (Alexander) Rossi, myself, we would be half a lap in front of everyone. That is the nature of this race. You need to be lucky in some moments.

Even with some unlucky moments of the yellow flags, we were in the group, in the mix. So, no, I mean, it felt OK. Obviously when you are eighth, then seventh, you know the last 20 laps were intense, but I was taking care a bit of the front tires in the first couple laps of that stint because I knew the race would be decided in the last six or seven laps.

I think I had a little bit on the pocket before the engine blew up.”

Alonso has experienced similar disappointments with Honda’s F1 power unit in his No. 14 McLaren, a fact that prompted Brown to work with INDYCAR officials and Andretti to secure a Dallara-based Indy car originally assigned to Stefan Wilson. The idea was to keep Alonso, whose F1 contract reportedly pays him $35-million per year, motivated and interested in the iconic team founded by the late Bruce McLaren.

“When Fernando and I first spoke about the Indianapolis 500,” Brown said, “I wasn’t sure what Fernando’s response would be because I think not many race car drivers in this world are brave enough to do what Fernando just did. Not just from a physical standpoint, but the whole world was watching Fernando race today. He put himself out there and exposed himself _ delivered the goods _which isn’t a surprise to anyone that has watched Fernando race.

So I was pleased, very pleased, that competing at the Indy 500 was his dream. It’s been part of McLaren’s history, and a dream to win Indy 500s in the future.”

So, with the tantalizing possibility of an Indy 500 victory still dangling before him, Alonso was asked if he envisioned returning to the “Cathedral of Speed” at the corners of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.

“Definitely yes,” Alonso said. “Obviously if I come back here, at least I know how it is everything. It will not be the first time I do restarts, pit stops, all these kind of things. So will be an easier, let’s say, adaptation. Let’s see what happen in the following years. Yeah, I need to keep pursuing this challenge because winning the Indy 500 is not completed. It holds a new challenge if I can find a car that slow me down somehow.”

Meanwhile, back in Monaco, McLaren slogged through another lost weekend as neither Englishman Jenson Button _ subbing for Alonso _ nor Stoffel  Vandoorne of Belgium finished the 78-lapper won by four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving for Scuderia Ferrari.

Button, the 2009 world champion who came out of retirement for a one-off drive through the Principality, was involved in the race’s most dramatic moment en route to an 18th place finish in the field of 20. Button’s Lap 60 pass attempt on Sauber/Ferrari’s Pascal Wehrlein ended up tipping the latter’s car onto its side against the Portier barriers. Wehrlein, of Germany, was trapped in the cockpit, but unharmed, while waiting for help to be extricated. Button was forced to retire Alonso’s car shortly after with suspension damage.

Neither Alonso nor Vandoorne, who was classified as DNF in 16th, has scored a championship point this season.

“I’m never happy when McLaren is not finishing the race,” Alonso said.”I mean, is true that before coming here some of the questions were, ‘How you can trade Monaco race for Indy 500? This is the best opportunity for the team, this is the best opportunity to score points.’ I won two times there, I won two world championships. To drive around Monaco for a sixth-place, seventh-place, even a fifth-place…

To be here is not possible to compare that thing. I think for motorsport in general, people that watched the race this morning in Monaco, the people that watch the race this afternoon here, I think they could not sit down for three hours this afternoon.

I didn’t miss Monaco in terms of result, you know? So for the future, Canada (Round 7 June 9-11), obviously we will try to keep improving. I think the car seems to be performing better and better. In Barcelona we were seventh in qualifying. In Monaco both cars were Q3. I think the second half of the season will be much more competitive and we will enjoy much more.”

Alonso also reportedly contacted Button via radio prior to the start. “I am sure you don’t want to hear my voice before you start, but I just want to say good luck and I will be watching you here,” Alonso said.

“Thanks mate.” Button replied. “I am going to pee in your seat!”

Alonso: “Please don’t do that!”

###

Official results of the 101st Indianapolis 500 Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis/engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (4) Takuma Sato, Honda, 200, Running
2. (19) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 200, Running
3. (11) Ed Jones, Honda, 200, Running
4. (15) Max Chilton, Honda, 200, Running
5. (7) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 200, Running 
6. (18) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 200, Running
7. (3) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 200, Running
8. (8) Marco Andretti, Honda, 200, Running
9. (25) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, 200, Running
10. (24) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 200, Running
11. (2) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 200, Running
12. (14) Graham Rahal, Honda, 200, Running
13. (13) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 200, Running
14. (23) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 200, Running
15. (31) Sebastian Saavedra, Chevrolet, 200, Running
16. (6) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 200, Running
17. (28) Pippa Mann, Honda, 199, Running
18. (29) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 194, Running
19. (22) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 186, Running 
20. (33) James Davison, Honda, 183, Contact
21. (12) Oriol Servia, Honda, 183, Contact
22. (17) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 183, Contact
23. (9) Will Power, Chevrolet, 183, Contact
24. (5) Fernando Alonso, Honda, 179, Mechanical
25. (16) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 166, Mechanical
26. (32) Zach Veach, Chevrolet, 155, Mechanical
27. (10) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 136, Mechanical
28. (21) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, 125, Mechanical
29. (30) Buddy Lazier, Chevrolet, 118, Contact 
30. (26) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 65, Contact  
31. (27) Jack Harvey, Honda, 65, Contact
32. (1) Scott Dixon, Honda, 52, Contact
33. (20) Jay Howard, Honda, 45, Contact 

Race Statistics
Winners average speed: 155.395 mph
Time of Race: 3:13:03.3584
Margin of victory: 0.2011-seconds
Cautions: 11 for 50 laps
Lead changes: 35 among 15 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Dixon 1-5 
Kanaan 6-27
Carpenter 28-29
Hildebrand 30
Montoya 31
Carpenter 32-34
Rossi 35-36
Alonso 37-42
Rossi 43-47
Alonso 48-60
Rossi 61-64
Sato 65-75
Rossi 76-78
Hunter-Reay 79-81
Power 82-83
Chilton 84-86
Hunter-Reay 87-89
Rossi 90-93
Hunter-Reay 94-95
Castroneves 96-103
Hunter-Reay 104
Rossi 105-109
Hunter-Reay 110-112
Rahal 113-114
Hunter-Reay 115-129
Alonso 130-134
Hunter-Reay 135 
Alonso 136-138
Chilton 139-142
Kimball 143-147
Chilton 148-150
Davison 166-167
Hildebrand 168
Chilton 169-193
Castroneves 194
Sato 195-200

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Castroneves 245, Pagenaud 234, Sato 234, Dixon 234, Rossi 190, Kanaan 188, Power 186, Newgarden 186, Jones 185, Hinchcliffe 170, Chilton 170.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 29 2017
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