INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Moments after qualifying for his first Indianapolis 500, two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso compared the sensation to other qualifying attempts in his career.
Make no mistake: Alonso experienced oval-track qualifying for the first time, and the nerves it took to complete four laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at better than 231 mph had his full attention, especially as veteran driver Sebastien Bourdais endured one of the most wicked crashes in fabled track’s the modern era. (Bourdais suffered several pelvic fractures, a broken right hip, and a bruised lung in the 227 mph impact in Turn 2 that registered a peak g load of 114.)
Alonso said qualifying on the ragged edge is always an adventure, regardless of venue, layout, or discipline.
“All qualifyings are tricky, you know,” he said. “I go to my go-kart place, when I have put on new tires. I have 15 kids watching me with a timer [in] the hands. [It] is very tough, you know?”
He laughed, but there was a clear sense of seriousness in his description.
“Every qualifying you do you go against the physics of the car and the physics of the circuit in that particular moment,” he said. “It gets stressful, it gets difficult, tricky.
“But at the same time, you know, huge adrenaline when you cross the line.”
Alonso has almost had the perfect indoctrination to IMS, first with his single-car test on May 3. In more than four hours of driving Andretti Autosport’s car, he didn’t so much as put a wheel wrong, and that was with an audience of more than 2 million watching the live feed on IndyCar’s social media channels.
Alonso moved effortlessly from racing in the F1 Spanish Grand Prix on a Sunday to mixing it up with the Verizon IndyCar Series regulars in traffic on the following Tuesday at IMS. Even the most veteran of Indy observers marveled at his car control and maturity.
All week, the most experienced IndyCar drivers described the white-knuckling of qualifying for the event, a series of four-lap runs against the clock. The separation between first and second on the time sheet often is reduced to a couple of feet over 10 miles. Drivers hoping to win the pole must post efforts in the top nine on Saturday, then run like the wind on Sunday. Alonso did both.
Alonso actually held the provisional pole briefly Sunday, knocking Tony Kanaan off the top spot. However, teammate and reigning 500 champion Alexander Rossi, another F1 product, though nowhere near as seasoned as Alonso, bumped Alonso down a notch, and the Spaniard finished the Fast Nine Shootout with the fifth-best time (231.300 mph). Alonso will start Sunday’s 500 from the middle of the second row.
“The car was on the limit, but I don’t know if it was possible to be on pole position,” he said after Scott Dixon posted a four-lap average of 231.907 mph, the fastest run in 21 years. “I had an overboost problem on lap two out of the last corner, and it was like hitting the brakes.
“I went one gear down and started again picking up the speed, and I crossed the line [faster than expected]. When I thought it was 225 [mph] or something, I nearly came to the pit lane because this qualifying run is [not good] with this problem. But I was still running, still putting the laps together, and then I was happily surprised with the total time.”
The only real hiccup in Alonso’s month came as the second qualifying day began. Honda officials saw something in his engine information they didn’t like, so they decided to change powerplants with barely enough time to execute the work. At one point there were a dozen hands in motion, but Michael Andretti’s crew pulled it off and delivered the car to technical inspection with only a couple of minutes to spare.
“Amazing,” Alonso said. “I saw like 20 people around my car changing parts. That was a truly good thing to experience today, how the teamwork plays here. I was extremely proud and happy for them.”
Alonso will have teammates around him on race day, too. Rossi will start in the third spot, Takuma Sato in the fourth, Marco Andretti in the eighth and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the 10th.
Alonso also is appreciative of the way the 500 works as an event, and he noted that, unlike F1, the close contact with the fans “is good [and] it’s fun and you enjoy them.”
The 500’s schedule calls for Alonso and Rossi to do a media tour through New York on Tuesday, visit Indianapolis-area schools on Wednesday, participate in media day activities at IMS on Thursday, go through Carb Day on Friday, a parade and public drivers meeting on Saturday, and then the race on Sunday.
Rossi told Alonso that race day begins with the ceremonial cannon fired at 6 a.m.
“6:00?” Alonso said.
“Yeah,” Rossi said. “It’s probably the coolest six hours of your life.”
Photography courtesy of IndyCar