Inside Line: Can Fernando win the Indy 500?

I, like some two million others, was fascinated to watch online Fernando Alonso’s drive for the first time on an oval race course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of his rookie orientation test.

To judge by the many troll like messages that were posted on Facebook by fans more accustomed to road courses, what can be so difficult about just turning left and why should a two times World Champion have to do a ‘rookie” test?

Well the more you watched and indeed listened to the commentary by former Indy legends Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford, the more you understood what a specialist art oval racing is, particularly at Indianapolis.

Firstly, there are no run off areas, just solid concrete walls and secondly the cars in race mode are travelling at speeds averaging in excess of 220 mph.

As double the world champion explained: “The circuit looks so narrow when you are at that speed. When you watch on television or you are on the simulator, everything seems bigger and easier but when you are in the real car, it is very, very narrow.”

Whatever their background, every new driver has do the rookie test and complete laps within prescribed speed ranges to be eligible for participation in the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s target was to cover 10 laps between 205 to 210mph, 15 laps between 210 to 215mph and then 15 laps between 215mph and 220mph. He achieved this over a total of 51 laps spread across four runs in his first hour on track and posted a fastest average lap speed of 219.654mph.

This whole opportunity came about through transatlantic family connections, both real and acquired.

Mario Andretti not only is the 1978 F1 World Champion and the 1969 Indy 500 winner, but also the father of Michael who drove for McLaren in F1 in 1993 as team mate to Ayrton Senna. Michael has now established himself as a very successful team owner and winner of the Indy 500 in 2016 with former F1 driver Alexander Rossi and is now the entrant for Fernando Alonso’s McLaren Honda’s quest for victory.

Historically McLaren cars have won the Indianapolis 500 three times. Twice with a works entry with Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and 1976, which coincidently were also the years that McLaren won the F1 Drivers World Championship with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt. In addition, a McLaren won the race in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving for Roger Penske, who is one of Indy cars most successful teams.

Subtly proclaimed as “the Racing Capital of the World”, the Indy 500 between 1950 to 1960 was actually part of the F1 World Championship, even though none of the Indy drivers raced in Formula One and of the F1 drivers only Ferrari’s Alberto Ascari raced in the 500 in 1952. Five time world champion Juan Fangio practiced at the Speedway in 1958, but ultimately decided against racing there.

In the sixties, with Formula One typically holding around eight Grands Prix a year, drivers were able to drive in other categories, such as Formula 2, CanAm and Indianapolis. Jim Clark not only was the victor in 1965, but this also was the first time that a rear engined car won, ending the era of the front engined roadsters. The following year Graham Hill completed the British double winning in a Lola.

Speaking as a purist, sadly these days motorsport has changed and is much more specialised with surrounding commercial arrangements. This makes Fernando Alonso’s entry in the Indianapolis 500 this year so unique.

Ok let’s not kid ourselves, if McLaren Honda were remotely competitive in Formula One then this would never have happened. But they are not. This opportunity has come about through unique circumstances, and it is a unique opportunity!

Of course it would never have happened had Ron Dennis still been in charge at McLaren! But with new management and fresh enthusiasm, all credit must go to new Executive Director Zak Brown to turning the PR disaster of McLaren Honda’s dismal F1 performance into a PR success in North America.

Whilst the cynics may not agree, which includes certain F1 Team Principals, this does without doubt have positive effects across global motorsport. Fernando Alonso is without doubt one of the best drivers in the world, but he has not had the equipment available to allow him to show his full potential.

True it could be argued that he may have not always made the right decisions to be in the best car at the right time. But he is a true racer, a passionate enthusiast for the sport and the clock is ticking on his career!

The famed triple crown of motorsport is Fernando’s goal. Historically the only driver to win the ingredients of Formula One (World Championship and/or Monaco), Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 is Graham Hill. McLaren have done it as a constructor and Mercedes has as an engine.

So a negative has been turned into a positive and a neat PR diversion from the mess McLaren are in! McLaren these days is much more than a Formula One team, it is now a technology and road car company which needs to promote its brand and services, plus the sponsors can get visibility of a more positive kind.

Whether Fernando can win is another matter. It is one thing to run at over 220 mph, but to race in close proximity to many other racers at such high speeds is another matter. However he will be entering the race as maybe one of the best prepared rookies.

He will be with one of the best teams, Andretti Motorsport the winners of last year’s Indy 500, plus will have the benefit of the team’s squad of six or so drivers to give advice and practice high speed racing proximity. In addition, he will be having the coaching guidance of Gil de Ferran, double Indycar Champion and Indy 500 winner in 2003.

The month of May will indeed be interesting!

Inside Line Opinion by Peter Burns