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Alonso Moves In On Triple Crown

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 27 2020

Formula One champion Fernando Alonso crosses the virtual yard of bricks.

With his sweep of Saturday’s two virtual races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fernando Alonso delivered a real-world message about this summer’s delayed running of the 104th Indianapolis 500.

Every lap Fernando completes around IMS brings the two-time Formula One World Driving Champion 2.5-miles closer to completing motorsports’ elusive/exclusive Triple Crown. A victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on Aug. 23 would complete that quest four years after the popular Spaniard capped his oval-track racing debut as 2017 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

Alonso, who was bumped from the traditional 33-car field for last year’s Indy 500, swept Saturday’s Torque Esports Legends Trophy races against an illustrious field on the virtual IMS. A newcomer to esports, Alonso topped a 26-driver field featuring six Indy 500 champions, four Formula 1 World Champions and the esports debut of legendary Mario Andretti in a sim racing doubleheader. Adding to the nostalgia, veteran Indy 500 announcer Paul Page was a special guest during the ESPN broadcast.

With two real-world wins in F1’s Monaco Grand Prix and two at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Alonso is one of only 13 drivers to have won two of three legs of the Triple Crown. That leaves the Indy 500 as the missing link to a feat earned previously only by double F1 World Champion Graham Hill of Great Britain.

Alonso made his Indy 500 debut in ‘17 with a 24th-place finish after leading 27 laps in a car fielded by Andretti Autosport. Fernando will compete with Arrow McLaren SP in the classic’s 104th edition that was moved from May to August amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  Arrow McLaren SP is the result of a first-year partnership among Arrow Electronics, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and McLaren Racing.

McLaren’s Indy 500 history dates to the 1970s, highlighted by Johnny Rutherford’s run from 1973-79. “Lone Star J.R.,” of Fort Worth, Texas, scored victories in McLaren entries in 1974 and 1976 sandwiched around a runnerup result in 1975.

During a pre-Indy 500 shakedown test at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in April 2019, Alonso confirmed the Triple Crown truly has become his raison d’etre. “Yeah, absolutely,” Alonso said. “That’s the target after winning Le Mans last year. The Indy 500 is the one left of the big ones. 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. Probably the race has to choose you, in a way, to win. We are aware of that.”

Having only received his Allinsports simulator nine days prior to Saturday’s doubleheader, Alonso quickly demonstrated he is just as fast in the virtual world as he is on any racetrack.

“I think it has been a super-enjoyable weekend and this week’s practice as well,” Alonso, 38, said post-race. “Every night this week we’ve been here with the guys, and we chat in the Whatsapp group to work on the car and make sure we had a car to put on a good show on the weekends.

“I’m very new at this! I only received the rig last Thursday before (last week’s Legends Trophy race at) Zandvoort. After one week and a-half, I’m still playing with some buttons. It was great today, and it’s good fun always at the Indianapolis Speedway.”

The opening 20-minute timed race was highlighted by a dramatic battle between former McLaren F1 teammates Jenson Button and Alonso, who qualified second and fourth, respectively. The pair swapped the lead late in the race, with Alonso taking advantage of a bobble by Button to go to the front for the final lap. Alonso fended off the 2009 F1 World Champion, including a last-gasp dive to the inside on the straight heading to the checkered flag. It was not enough as Alonso prevailed by less than 0.1-seconds.

“I was super-scared of losing the first race,” Alonso said. “Jenson is a very smart guy and we were both playing games trying to be in front or behind. We were studying each other, but with Jenson you never know. He’s always one step ahead and I was very worried that I would slip. He had a moment in Turn 4 one lap before the end, and that was enough of a gap for me.”

Four-time 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner Jan Magnussen finished third, ex-Formula 1 driver Tiago Monteiro was fourth and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan rounded out the top five.

Alonso’s performance in the second race may have been even more impressive, as he started 21st via a reverse grid format. Three minutes into the 20-minute race, Fernando was third. Alonso engaged Monteiro in a back-and-forth for the lead with Button, three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves and three-time Le Mans winner David Brabham. Alonso had a 0.6-second lead over Monteiro on the final lap before pulling away for the victory.

Castroneves finished third, Button fourth and Brabham fifth. The 73-year-old Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time F1 World Champion and two-time Indy 500 winner, matched his season-best finish with a 10th.

Andretti, meanwhile, only began sim racing last week. Owner of an F1 World Championship, four INDYCAR series titles and wins in the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, Mario showed good pace throughout but was victimized by incidents in both races.

“I had a blast! Obviously, it seemed like I was part of every situation that was happening out there, but other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it,” the 80-year-old Andretti said. “Will I do it again? You never say never. We have the rig here, I have to get a lot more familiar with it. It was not natural; it was so different.

“What I have going against me is that you drive it differently. The line is a little different, so you have to understand just what the rig wants, what the sim likes and how aggressive you can get. There’s a definite learning curve, no question about it.”

The two top-four finishes by Button extended his point lead to 39 (322-283) over five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro. Magnussen is third at 271. The fifth and final round of the Torque Esports/Engine Media’s The Race All-Star Series Legends Trophy championship will be another doubleheader on Saturday beginning at noon (EDT, ESPN2) at a track to be determined.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 27 2020
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