Fernando Alonso prepares to go out for a practice session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo by LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
Alonso and McLaren CEO Zak Brown flew to Birmingham, Alabama, to familiarize themselves with his new team. The Verizon IndyCar Series was at Barber Motorsports Park just outside Birmingham for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
When Autoweek told Alonso that a bonus to this year’s Indy 500 was the chance to compete against his old F1 nemesis, two-time 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, Alonso quipped, “I don’t know if he will be in the front.”
The next day he flew to Indianapolis to see his car at the Andretti Autosport shop and have his seat fitted. He also got to meet his race engineer, Eric Bretzman, who also serves as Andretti Autosport technical director, and his crew chief, Dave Popielarz, a man who has won races in the “Stinger” division at the Indianapolis Speedrome.
“Before the month of May is over, I want to take Fernando up to Kokomo Speedway,” Popielarz said. “I think he would have a blast.”
After competing in the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi on April 30, Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his first time behind the wheel of an Indy car. The private test also served as Alonso’s Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) for the Indy 500, and he breezed through the training session. Although it was considered a “private” session, more than 2 million viewers online watched Alonso in a single-car test session that lasted most of the day.
With Mario Andretti, left, looking on, Fernando Alonso gets ready for a practice session. Photo by LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
After competing in the F1 Spanish Grand Prix, it was time for Alonso’s adventure to kick into high gear. The race ended at 8:30 p.m. in Spain. Alonso, Brown, McLaren racing director Éric Boullier, Alonso’s girlfriend and his personal assistant departed on his private plane for a nine-hour flight to Indianapolis. The flight arrived at 10:30 p.m. local time. Alonso was asleep by midnight.
Alonso moved from the hotel to his home for the month: a motorhome in the driver/owner motorhome lot at the Speedway. He took part in the team manager/spotter meeting before climbing into his car for afternoon practice.
Alonso was annoyed that his team limited the number of laps he could run on opening day. He wanted to drive more.
While many of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers were still eating breakfast, Alonso was at the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, at 7:30 a.m.
“It’s a very early start because this is a very busy week,” Alonso said. “Afterwards, we are heading to the track for free practice. I have a little bit of jet lag but it’s important to get to work on the simulator.”
When he returned to the Speedway for practice, Alonso’s pit area was a popular place for fans who crowded behind him to get a look at the F1 phenom. The driver posed for photos, signed autographs and took a few selfies with the fans. He also broke out his skateboard so he could get back to the garage area in Gasoline Alley.
Many fans didn’t even realize it was Alonso until he was already gone.
Fernando Alonso was quick all month in practice. Photo by LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
Alonso began the day fine-tuning his skills by watching past Indianapolis 500 videos, including a full race from one single in-car camera. That gave him a great visual experience of what it would look like behind the wheel of his car. He also swapped helmets with teammate Marco Andretti; each got a souvenir.
It was a very windy day at the Speedway. Driving under such conditions at high speeds was a completely new experience.
The speeds increased. Alonso moved up the speed chart with ease. Later that day in practice, Alonso got to join his five other Andretti Autosport teammates in long runs of high-speed packs, lap after lap, running wheel-to-wheel and trading positions.
“That was great fun,” Alonso said. “The group runs are a lot of fun. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a race car.”
Alonso finished the day with the fourth fastest speed of the day at 225.619 mph.
It was “Fast Friday” at the Speedway as each car cranked up the boost and turned the fastest speeds of the week. That’s just what Alonso wanted. Alonso drove a fast lap of 231.827 mph -- the fastest lap of his life.
Fernando Alonso, left, and Gil de Ferran examine tire wear. Photo by LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
Qualification Day for the Indianapolis 500 began with heavy rain, and that meant hours of waiting around before finally getting his first shot at making the field. The crowds were bigger and the speeds remained high as the driver easily made the “Fast Nine” group of drivers that would fight it out for the Indy 500 pole. His four-lap average was 230.034 mph.
“I have a shot for pole position tomorrow, and that’s really a nice surprise,” Alonso said. “The car performed very well under tricky conditions.”
So, what did Alonso think of his first four-lap Indianapolis 500 qualification attempt?
“All qualifyings are tricky,” he said. “I go to my go-kart place, when I have put new tires. I have 15 kids watching me with a timer on the hand. Is very tough. So, every qualifying you do, you go against the physics of the car and the physics of the circuit in that particular moment.
“It gets stressful. It gets difficult, tricky. But at the same time, huge adrenaline when you cross the line.”
Pole Day arrived and the sun came back out. And its shiny glare was the brightest on Alonso as he sat in the tech line getting ready to qualify.
But there was also a tremendous amount of anxiety from his McLaren Honda Andretti Team because an engine issue developed in the final practice session before qualifications.
HPD officials discovered a problem after a blown gasket, so an engine change was necessary.
“I’m just glad that they changed engines before qualifying and the race, so I’m not nervous,” Alonso said, referring to the plagued engines he uses in Formula 1 with McLaren. “As soon as we decided to change the engine, 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 of them.”
Alonso qualified fifth on the grid after running a four-lap average of 231.300 mph.
“That was fun,” he said. “I want to go faster.”
Alonso qualified fifth for his first Indy 500. Photo by LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
Fernando Alonso ran in the top-10 most of the race and led 27 laps before his engine let go with 21 laps to go. Photo by LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
When Fernando Alonso decided to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500, the two-time Formula 1 World Champion from Spain knew it would be a great adventure.
Little did he know he would have the time of his life.
Alonso’s journey to this year’s Indy 500 brought additional luster and attention to the Memorial Day weekend race and helped restore its place as “The Greatest Race in the World.”
This adventure began in April, and Autoweek was allowed to come along for the ride.
Here are a few snapshots of that adventure and how the 101st running will always be remembered for “Alonso Mania.”
There was a four-hour practice session on May 22 as teams ran on full tanks to prepare for the race. As soon as that ended, Alonso and teammate Alexander Rossi were scuttled off to New York for an Indianapolis 500 media tour that was full of interviews.
“I think we should be racing in New York in F1,” Alonso admitted.
Not a lot of people recognized Alonso in New York City, but a group of Indonesian tourists did when he came out of NBC studios; they took a group selfie.
The driver was very unassuming all day, mostly quiet but smiling and engaged in every interview. Every time the group got into one of the large, black SUVs, he squeezed all the way in the back to allow others to sit up front.
Alonso also discovered he likes toast so much he often ate it at all three meals per day. He prefers wheat toast, which is all he had for breakfast, along with cappuccino.
Alonso went “back to school” on Wednesday to meet up with some local school students at William Penn School. After speaking to the students and signing autographs, he returned to the simulator.
“I’m testing some things for the race that I need to learn, some different techniques for the next two or three hours,” Alonso said. “I feel like a monkey climbing out of that simulator. It’s good. It’s my best friend for the last two weeks.”
Carb Day at the Speedway, and Alonso was once again one of the fast drivers. He finished with the fifth fastest speed of 226.608 mph as cars ran in race condition.
After attending the annual public Drivers Meeting, where he received one of the loudest ovations from the thousands of fans, Alonso took part in another Indy tradition. That’s the annual parade on the streets of Indianapolis that is attended by 500,000 spectators. The day concluded with the annual Andretti Autosport Indianapolis 500 party for the team and sponsors.
It didn’t take Alonso long to show why he is considered one of the world’s best drivers.
Alonso performed his first rolling start since his go-kart days with beautiful precision. After dropping back two positions to settle in, he quickly advanced his way through the field.
He was up to third place by lap 29, second on lap 36 and into the lead on lap 37. Alonso would lead four times for 27 laps and was in serious contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew just 21 laps from the checkered flag.
“With us, it’s always the engine,” McLaren’s Matthew Bishop said.
Alonso came to the Indianapolis 500 in search of an adventure and he found one.
“It was a great experience,” Alonso said. “I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself. I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar.
“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 on top of it. I was thinking if Zak [Brown] or someone from the team was taking a picture. I want that picture at home.
“Thanks to IndyCar for an amazing experience. Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”
And with that, Alonso bid his farewell by toasting the media -- with milk.
The gentleman racer: Fernando Alonso speaks to EDGAR
The Dubai resident tells us about life away from the paddock, including his passion for cycling and the museum that charts his 30-year motorsport career.March 21, 2016
Many Formula 1 drivers divide opinion, but Fernando Alonso is one that tends to unite fans. An all-round good guy, the Spaniard is now entering the twilight of his career and his status as one of the sport’s iconic figures has endeared him further to Grand Prix fans.
A respected and well-liked driver on the Formula One circuit, Alonso turns 35 in July and is one of the oldest drivers on the grid – only Kimi Räikkönen, Felipe Massa and Jenson Button are older.
He’s regarded as a supremely talented driver who has been let down by the car since his first world title more than ten years ago. The Spaniard, who has a house in Dubai, would dearly love to add a third title to his trophy cabinet and one last title charge would be a fairytale story for F1 fans.
EDGAR spoke to Alonso ahead of the 2016 season. The easy going Spaniard talked about the coming campaign, life away from the track – including his passion for cycling – and the museum he has carefully curated.
Who was your mentor when you entered F1?
My idols were the drivers I watched race when I was growing up: guys like Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. They were guys with incredible reputations – not just on the track, but off it too. I think Formula 1 needs larger-than-life characters – I was definitely influenced by those guys.
You've spoken about the restrictions that are making F1 boring – what do you think needs to change?
To be clear, I don’t think F1 is boring – not at all – but I think the engineers and rule-makers are definitely on-track to improve the formula for the future.
Is the sport in a good place right now?
Formula 1 is always changing – that’s what makes it such a unique sport. Even from one race to the next, the car is different so I am always optimistic about the future of the sport.
The media scrutiny in F1 is intense – have you got better at handling it as you have got older?
I think you learn through your mistakes to be a bit more cautious, yes. It’s strange to see the words you’ve spoken with a particular meaning get interpreted into something else. That feels weird, so, certainly, I know when to speak out and when to stay silent!
Do you find fame difficult?
I think it’s something that you learn to manage. You won’t see me in nightclubs, or at premieres, or fashion events. I like to keep my private life just that: private. And, I find that living in Dubai gives me the perfect level of privacy – people don’t interfere in my life and are very respectful. I like it like that.
If you could be world class at any other sport, what sport would you choose?
If you were to ask me the question when I was a kid, I’d have said a footballer. If you’re asking me now, it would be a pro cyclist.
Yes, we heard that you love cycling. What attracts you to the sport?
I love its purity. I love the fact that the more pain you put into it, the more pleasurable it becomes! I also love the sport’s roots are so clearly on display – the Spring Classics are raw, pure cycling events, and the Grand Tours have a century of history behind them.
Also, you can just walk up to the side of the road to watch a cycle race – there’s no barrier to entry, which is incredibly liberating. Also, I have to admit, the technology is also incredible – I love the bicycle, and seeing a proper racing bike, ridden by a pro, is always a thrill.
Are there any comparisons between cycling and Formula 1?
In many ways, it’s the opposite of Formula 1 – cycling is a sport where the individual is hugely influential, where your abilities transcend the machinery you use.
Do you hope one day to enter a team in the Tour de France?
It’s no secret that I have ambitions in that area, but it’s not an easy project to get off the ground. No news yet, I’m afraid.
Tell us about the museum you founded – why did you create it?
There was an opportunity and a thought to do something. We did something originally in Madrid a few years ago, and it felt right to do something in Oviedo (Fernando’s hometown). And if we were going to do something, why not do it right and do it properly? So we tried really hard to make it perfect, and the karting academy added to that. It took it from being something that only looked back to something that also looked forward, which was very important to me.
What are your favourite pieces inside?
There are two: my first go-kart, which was painted in red and white McLaren colours, and the R25 (above left), the car in which I won my first World Championship.
What was the last movie you saw at the cinema?
Most of the movies I see are on planes, unfortunately. I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies. The last film I saw on a plane was the Mad Max film, Fury Road. It was crazy and incredible.
How about a career in Hollywood when you retire from Formula 1?
You won’t see me there, that’s for sure!