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Alonso Hits The Restart Button In Bid To Win Indy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 10 2019
Two-time F1 world driving champion Fernando Alonso made a trip to the banks on Tuesday in order to help him prep for the upcoming Indianapolis 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Fernando Alonso is approaching his meticulous preparation for a second Indianapolis 500 start next month as if 2017 never even happened.

Considering that Fernando emerged from a near-perfect Month of May two years ago with 27 laps-led and as Rookie of the Year despite an engine failure, that pragmatism typifies the two-time Formula One World Driving Champion.

Alonso’s bid for victory in the 103rd edition of the Indianapolis 500 on May 26 _ possibly the final leg of Fernando’s personal Triple Crown quest _ began Tuesday afternoon with a day-long shakedown session around Texas Motor Speedway. Dealing with ambient temperatures in the low 90s, Alonso and his crew acclimated themselves to TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval with the sister car of the No. 66 McLaren/Chevrolet he plans to qualify and race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I take this race as I was again starting from zero,” Alonso said during an early-afternoon break from the cockpit. “I don’t want take for granted anything. I want to review every single race from the past. I want to start from zero with the engineers on everything. I want to go to the simulator. I didn’t make any pre-start yet, any pit stop. I want to make as much preparation as possible into the 26th of May.”

Fernando Alonso is starting over as he seeks to win racing’s Triple Crown. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

That said, Alonso added he already feels “a lot more prepared” for everything that comprises “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on IMS’ famed 2.5-mile oval. Alonso qualified the No. 29 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport fifth for his first oval-track race two years ago and was running seventh when an engine failure on Lap 180 of the scheduled 200 ended a storybook Month of May.

“At least I know the race,” said Alonso, who officially finished 24th in the traditional 33-car field. “I know the atmosphere of the 500. I know the drivers’ parade. I know the formation laps. I know a lot of things that you spend energy on the first time you are there because everything comes by surprise. So I think that energy, I can save it now. I know how it goes, so I go into the rhythm of the race and into qualifying with a little more energy and more concentration.”

Tuesday’s test was the first for Alonso on an oval other than IMS. The 37-year-old Spaniard did not compete in an NTT IndyCar Series event in 2018.

“Obviously, it’s only the first couple of laps with the car and we’re taking care of everything, slowly building the speed,” Alonso said. “But, yeah, I drove the Indy car at Barber (Motorsports Park’s road-course) last year but it’s good to be back on the oval with a very specific setup and this car that turns left, self-steering a little bit. Again, some weird feeling for me but trying to get used to it. Also, the speedway (TMS) is very special. There’s a lot of banking on the corner, especially in (Turns) 3 and 4 so very different than Indianapolis but, hopefully, a good preparation for us.

“For myself, it’s just about getting comfort in the car. It’s a new car and a new team so, in terms of seat position, head rest, pedals, steering wheel preferences, all these things I think now we can start the work. And for the team, I think it’s quite important to set up everything as a team _ who does what in the team and also the people, the facility, everything is completely new for everyone. We’re trying to solve as many problems as possible here and the open test on the 24th and getting ready for the 500.”

The papaya orange No. 66 car unveiled by McLaren Racing Monday is en route from the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, United Kingdom, to the USA ahead of an open test around IMS scheduled for April 24. The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule does not include an oval race prior to the Indy 500.

Alonso’s ride with Michael Andretti’s team in 2017 featured Honda power and the manufacturer’s Speedway aero kit package. Sanctioning body INDYCAR switched to a universal aero kit furnished by Dallara for engine suppliers Honda and Chevrolet last year _ another new item for Alonso to address.

“So far I think it’s too early to say (there is a difference) because I’m not up to speed,” Alonso said. “But I guess, listening to everyone last year, I think there’s going to be less downforce, a little more tricky to drive, especially following (another car). So today is not a problem because I’m alone but I guess it’s going to be challenging. Especially this year, I am not in the Andretti (Autosport) environment so it’s all by ourselves this year, a lot to learn, a lot to understand and step-by-step.”

The F1 World Champion in 2005 and 2006, Alonso will be looking to secure the final leg of motorsports’ Triple Crown with a victory at IMS. The Spaniard won F1’s “Crown Jewel” street race _ the Monaco Grand Prix _ in 2006 and 2007 driving for Renault and McLaren, respectively.

Alonso added a victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his debut in the French sports car endurance classic in June 2018 driving a Toyota hybrid along with Kazuki Nakajima of Japan and Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland. With his shared victory at Le Mans, Alonso became one of only 13 drivers to have won two of three legs of the Triple Crown. Two-time F1 World Champion Graham Hill of Great Britain is the only driver to have won at Monaco, Le Mans and Indianapolis.

Alonso exited McLaren’s struggling F1 program after the 2018 campaign with career totals of 22 poles, 32 victories and 97 podium finishes. He began 2019 as a member of Wayne Taylor Racing’s winning Cadillac DPi team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, the season-opener for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Alonso shared the No. 10 Caddy with American Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande of The Netherlands and Kamui Kobayashi of Japan.

Alonso said the Triple Crown truly has become his raison d’etre. “Yeah, absolutely,” Alonso said with a smile. “That’s the target this year after winning Le Mans last year. The Indy 500 is the one left of the big ones. I was lucky enough to win Daytona 24 also at the beginning of the year so one day if I win the Indy 500 it’s not going to be a Triple Crown anymore. It’s going to be a little bit more.

“Hopefully, we can be competitive at least this year and feel that adrenaline and that magic that only the Indy 500 has. In terms of winning, we understand how difficult it is. We respect a lot the race, our competitors and you need a little bit of luck as well. It has to be your day. Probably the race has to choose you, in a way, to win. We are aware of that. Some things are out of our hands so let’s concentrate on everything we can do as a team and make a perfect race.”

Chief among Alonso’s observers here was three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth in his role as McLaren Racing Team Ambassador. “Lone Star J.R.” competed at IMS in McLaren cars from 1973-79, a run highlighted by victories in Offy-powered entries in 1974 and 1976 sandwiched around a runnerup result in 1975. Rutherford and McLaren also finished last in the 1977 race.

Rutherford said Tuesday’s single-car lap-fest before empty grandstands conjured up memories of all the “glamour” of testing. “Oh gosh, yes,” said Rutherford, who turned 81 last month. “I’ve done a lot of testing in my time and with McLaren. This is a totally different group then when I was there, and I was there seven years with Tyler Alexander and Teddy Meyer…a good group. We had a lot of success.”

Rutherford said Alonso is a perfect fit for the organization founded by the late Bruce McLaren of New Zealand. “He (Alonso) is an exceptional champion, the best title to hang on him because he knows what he’s doing, where he’s going,” Rutherford said. “I’m here to witness and I will be at Indianapolis to just watch and see if there’s anything…that place can throw so many curves at you that I’ve had the experience of 24 races at the Indy 500. I think he’ll do well if getting this late start doesn’t hinder them.

“But he is a two-time world champion in Formula One. He’s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he’s won the 24 Hours of Daytona, so he’s got plenty of blue ribbons in his cabinet, you know?”

Alonso said Rutherford’s initial advice at TMS specifically centered around the track’s banking differences. Turns 1 and 2 are banked at 20 degrees after a recent repave and reconfiguration while Turns 3 and 4 are banked at 24-degrees exiting into the narrow front stretch dogleg.

“Obviously he’s always taking care of us, in terms of safety, that’s first,” Alonso said of Rutherford. “Trying to give me some advice on the bumps into (Turns) 3 and 4, and not getting too close into the wall at the exit of (Turn) 2 because it seems you are quite far away but eventually you find yourself very close when the banking finish. So, yes, these kinds of things are obviously very welcome and to have him on board is always a plus.”

Rutherford said he is intrigued by Alonso’s determination to win the Triple Crown. “He’s made it known that he wants to win it all eventually,” Rutherford said. “Indianapolis, he came here two years ago and looked like he was on his way to win the thing. He was doing a great job and it just shows you the kind of a driver he is _ two-time world champion and good at anything he’s been in to race.

“The only problem I see is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We always referred to her as ‘The Old Lady.’ She can throw curves at you like you would not believe. It’s one of those things you just have to be ready for. That’s where I hope I can plug in to see things developing or happening. It just depends on how strong they get the car and go out there and do it.”

TMS President Eddie Gossage also viewed the test from pit road, as “The Great American Speedway” welcomed motorsports royalty to Cowtown.

“Man, that’s a big thing to have the two-time world champion here and have him testing for the Indy 500,” Gossage said. “Hopefully that leads in 2020 and beyond to him running the full INDYCAR schedule and that includes Texas.” INDYCAR’s annual DXC Technology 600 weekend of night racing is scheduled for June 6-8 and will include the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Rattlesnake 400.

Gossage said Alonso’s crossover to INDYCAR is all good for domestic open-wheel racing. “I think it’s from a 30,000-foot level, he’s doing it,” Gossage said. “I saw what (five-time/reigning F1 World Champion) Lewis Hamilton (of Mercedes) said that he might consider doing the same thing and that’s because of the international, worldwide appeal. I mean, this (Alonso) is an athlete of the world and here he is in Indy cars and liking what he’s doing. So if he winds up running at Indy again and doing well again and McLaren puts things together, he can run the entire schedule. That’s when it counts for the whole sport.”

Gossage also applauded Alonso’s Triple Crown aspiration. “A Triple Crown is a great idea and I think it would be great for it to happen again,” Gossage said. “There have been some great champions that have run across different genres of racing. In the last 20 years or so, Nigel Mansell comes to mind, obviously Juan Pablo Montoya…so many have done it through the years but to have won all three you have to go back more than 50 years. I think it would be an amazing accomplishment.

“He’s just the guy. There’s other guys who simply haven’t chosen to take a bite like this guy has, to try other disciplines. They’re good at their own discipline, can they drive other things and succeed at ‘em?”

Gossage acknowledged that Alonso’s first Indy 500 experience was a huge public relations success in that it bridged the fan gap between F1 and INDYCAR.

“There’s a certain elitism about Formula One that kind of looks down its nose at everything and everybody,” Gossage said. “And I think Formula One fans saw that INDYCAR is tough. Those Indy cars are pretty sophisticated. At the same time there are INDYCAR fans that kind of don’t appreciate F1 and the arrogance it carries. And here’s one of those F1 guys comes over here and does really good. He’s not afraid to get in there and mix it up and learn the craft and do well at it. That was a good two-way success story.”

Alonso deftly skirted the issue of competing fulltime in the series, even if American Zak Brown, McLaren’s CEO, decides to launch a dedicated domestic team. “It was a possibility last year when we started talking about the Indy 500 coming back,” Alonso said. “I think it was too intense for me, the season, if I commit to the full championship with the WEC (World Endurance Championship) calendar, the Daytona 24, etc., so it was not this year but it is not out the question for the future. Right now, I’m not thinking of that. But I cannot say no, 100 percent as well.”

Asked about the possibility of living in America to race fulltime in INDYCAR, Alonso said, “It depends how life goes. At the moment I’m quite happy in Europe. After 18 years in Formula 1, I need a little bit of time at home, as well…see my family…see my parents…maybe have my own family in the near future…all these kinds of things. So I don’t know, in two or three years’ time, how my life is going to be and if I will be happy to live outside Europe or not.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 10 2019
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