Fernando Alonso Loving Indy 500 Experience

Formula 1 champion relaxed and impressive, but knows he needs to learn quick

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — He rode through Gasoline Alley on a skateboard. Yeah, him.

Meet the new one-off Verizon IndyCar Series driver, Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 world champion already doing things differently at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Officially, Alonso completed 47 laps Monday on the first official day of practice for this month’s Indianapolis 500, finishing 19th on the speed chart among 32 drivers. His fastest lap was 223.025 mph, a half-second off the pace-setting 226.338 mph of Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti’s lap.

There’s obviously so much more to come for the Spaniard, so much to learn, so much to experience at this fabled oval track ahead of the 101st running of the race, on May 28. The pressure will build, certainly, which is why it was refreshing Monday to see Alonso clipping along on a skateboard with a big smile on his face.

“Five hours on the plane,” he said of the zzzzz time on the Sunday evening flight to Indianapolis — just hours after he drove his McLaren-Honda in the Spanish Grand Prix. “Five more at the hotel. Feel pretty good, although it will probably take a couple days here to feel [normal].”

Alonso will have that time because he will remain in the U.S. until after the 500 on May 28. He will spend each morning this week in the Honda simulator in nearby Brownsburg before driving to IMS to drive his Andretti Autosport car — the one his contract allows for him to take home as a collector’s item after the race.

Qualifying for the 500 is this weekend, but before that he could have more than 30 hours of track time under his belt, and that doesn’t even include the six hours he got in the May 3 test watched by more than 2 million unique viewers online.

Said Marco Andretti: “I think he’s more prepared than my rookie year. He’s more prepared than me at 19.”

Andretti was a full-season IndyCar regular in 2006 when he made his 500 debut, finishing second.

By all accounts, Alonso’s first day was smooth, well, with the exception of the rear suspension issue the crew of the No. 29 car dealt with that cost him the final 90 minutes of the session. Alonso arrived at the track mid-morning to meet those in and outside the garage area, sign autographs, meet with the team’s five other drivers, and get reacquainted with the oval and, briefly, to the traffic he knew was coming but didn’t see May 3. He’s not yet prepared to proclaim himself ready.

“[I’m] happier than the [test] day with the car because I was able to feel some of the setup changes that we were planning in the morning,” he said. “Not much running in traffic, so [that is] still the thing that I need to go through in the next couple of days, so that is something we need to chase [Tuesday] in the program. But I did two or three laps behind some cars that were going out of pit lane, and it was good fun. So, I’m looking forward [to it].”

Alonso has been asked on several occasions what the most difficult part of the IndyCar inauguration will be. Will it be running on an oval? Running side by side with so many other cars for such a long period? Gathering information from five teammates? The different strategies and rules?

“All of it,” he has said.

Monday, it was factoring in Indianapolis’ ever-changing wind.

“Yeah, it was quite windy today, so that was another thing that I was worried about when I jumped in the car,” he said. “I saw the [track’s] flags, and it seems that it was quite a strong wind. But on the car, I didn’t feel any big issues.”

Gil de Ferran, the former IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner brought in to assist Alonso with his new venture, has said he expects the pupil to have at least one big moment in the new classroom. In fact, Alonso already has had one.

After breezing through the required part of the May 3 rookie orientation test, Alonso found himself with his left-side tires too far below the white line in the Speedway’s famous Turn 1. Veteran chief steward Brian Barnhart was among those to hear Alonso lift off the throttle, the surest sign he had to catch the car if not his breath. Further proof: He came to pit road at the end of that lap.

“I think the most difficult thing will be the race itself, you know?” Alonso said. “All the things that happen in a race like this one, which are running in traffic, learning all the little tricks to overtake and then to use the performance of your car in which moment of the race — all these little things that only with experience and with races you can learn. And I don’t have that experience, and I don’t have that time, so I know I will be weaker in some of these aspects. I need to learn as quick as I can in the next 10 days, 12 days. Apart from that, I need to try to use other things that is not experience to try to close that gap that I will have.”

He might not yet know what he doesn’t know, but he isn’t going to fret about all the variables just yet. The team will have him in that Honda simulator for about 12 hours over the next week, and there is the unusual amount of a track time for a single event that comes with the month of May at Indy. And as Alonso is starting to see, if he can’t pick up nuances from Andretti, he’ll lean on the experience of former race winners Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014) and Alexander Rossi (2016), both of whom are likewise on his team. So is Takuma Sato, who nearly won the 2010 500, and rookie Jack Harvey.

“It will be interesting to know what these guys that have a lot of experience here [know], and they can test and what we can bring forward for my car,” he said. “[Whatever] they test and whatever is positive, I trust more than myself, so I will keep all those changes [in mind].”

With that, he smiled. It’s clear he’s relaxed in a skateboarding sort of way.

—Mark Allen