Alonso’s first test day Indy both real and spectacular (VIDEO)

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For parts of three years, there has been a part of Fernando Alonso frequently absent from his physical being: his smile.

But that was back in full on Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on an important and productive afternoon in his first day in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the sixth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Following Marco Andretti’s shakedown this morning, Alonso completed 110 laps at the 2.5-mile oval, just 27 fewer than he’s completed in four Grands Prix (50 in Australia, 33 in China and 54 in Bahrain, before failing to start in Russia) this season as power unit woes have saddled the otherwise promising reunion of McLaren and Honda.

The 275 miles completed brought the smile and more back to Alonso on his first day in an IndyCar, because the program outlined took on multiple components.

He first had to complete the Rookie Orientation Program, which had been moved up for him to today to get that complete as a rookie test day allotted per the INDYCAR Rulebook (no different than what Kurt Busch did in 2013, prior to being confirmed for the 2014 race, INDYCAR Race Director Brian Barnhart confirmed on the joint IMS/NBCSN live web stream).

Those saw the methodical speed improvements as he first ran from the 205 to 210 mph range for 10 laps, then 15 laps apiece in the 210 to 215 bracket and 15 more in the 215-plus bracket. He ultimately ended with a best speed of 222.548 mph after 110 laps.

But additionally, the day provided an opportunity for Alonso to get comfortable with the car, the track, the downforce settings, the power unit and the Andretti team from a working setting.

It left Alonso high on life at various points throughout the day.

“It was fun! It was a good way to start to build the speed. It was a little bit difficult at the beginning to meet the minimum,” Alonso told Robin Miller during the joint IMS/NBCSN live stream after his first run in the car. “Now we can put some laps and feel a bit of a the car. Right now the car is driving myself;  I’m not driving the car.

“It was so far a good experience. Now it starts the real deal.”

As track conditions changed, on what was already a cool day with ambient temperatures only hovering in the mid-50-degree range and track temperatures not much warmer, Alonso got a chance to see how the wind affected his running.

Alonso then delivered the early line of the day in his second post-run interview with Miller.

“At the beginning I have to be honest, the right foot has its own brain; it was not connected with my brain!” Alonso laughed. “The right foot has its own life. Right now I’m more in control with my own body.”

After 88 laps it looked like Alonso would be done for the day. Weather appeared to be coming from the West and the team took the car back to Gasoline Alley to make setup changes.

But instead the team shifted from its initial plan. Barnhart explained per the INDYCAR Rulebook that five sets of Firestone tires would be available today for Alonso to run with. Two further sets would be allotted for what when then be termed a refresher program on Monday, May 15, in the two hours that kick off the first day of official practice for the Indianapolis 500. By tapping into a sixth set as the team ultimately did, that limits the number of tires he can run that Monday.

The team, which features team principal Michael Andretti as Alonso’s strategist, technical director Eric Bretzman as his engineer and 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion and two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran as a driver coach, instead coached Alonso through more running where he could simulate yellow flag conditions, different engine maps and pit entries and exits.

Alonso had one close call near the end of the day when entering Turn 3, his two front tires struck two birds. While trying to avoid one, he hit two more.

“I saw one bird approaching Turn 3 in the penultimate run. I just lifted and avoided the bird,” Alonso said in the post-practice press conference. “Hopefully, I avoid that on the race day. I saved one but not the other two. Those two, I didn’t notice.”

But birds aside, the day was a chance for Alonso to acclimate and live out the reality of this dream for the first time – in what already has been an odyssey and in what will continue to be one over the coming 25 days until race day on May 28.

“It felt new to me! It felt strange, going anti-clockwise at those speeds,” Alonso said. “We went through the rookie orientation program at those speeds. It really helps the way you build your speed and get up to speed. Later in the day we were able to do some runs for myself to get familiar with the setup changes. Some of the procedures, even. We had some drops of rain on the visor. We were on the pace car simulation. We did a lot of procedures.

“It’s been a very helpful day in getting to learn all the techniques on driving. I’m happy with this first step.”

Alonso said his prior simulator work with Honda, completed after his trip to Birmingham, Ala. at Barber Motorsports Park and before he flew to Sochi, Russia for last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, provided a more than accurate depiction of what to expect. The only thing that threw him, he said, was how narrow the track is – and that’s without fans.

“I think what I felt in the car was more or less what I expected,” he said. “Thanks to the simulator test in the last couple weeks. It’s quite realistic.

“Now the track, it’s narrower than what I thought. (On) television, you see three cars aside on the straight. Now you’re in a car on the main straight.”

Alonso said once he saw Marco Andretti able to go flat from the off, the racer in him wanted to do the same.

“Marco was flat in Turn 1, so I wanted to do flat in Turn 1,” Alonso said. “I arrived at Turn 1 and I was convinced I was doing flat out… but the foot was not flat out. The brain was not connected with my foot at that moment. But the second lap was very good feeling.

“To be able to feel the respect of the place, the respect of the car, the respect of the speed, is something for any racing driver is pure adrenaline. It was a good day.”

And a day, it turned out, to remember.

Lauda: Halo decision has ‘destroyed’ push to bring fans to F1

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Niki Lauda believes the decision to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection to Formula 1 for 2018 has “destroyed” efforts to make the sport more appealing to fans.

The FIA announced on Wednesday that all cars would be fitted with the Halo from next season as part of its push to improve safety standards and prevent head injuries.

The Halo was extensively tested through 2016, but has not featured since last year’s finale in Abu Dhabi, with the ‘Shield’ concept being trialled – albeit unsuccessfully – at Silverstone.

There was a large amount of outcry online from fans following the Halo announcement, and three-time F1 world champion Lauda has also condemned the decision.

“We tested the Halo, the Red Bull ‘Aeroscreen’ and Ferrari’s Shield as cockpit protection. None has convinced me 100 per cent,” Lauda told Auto Motor und Sport in Germany.

“You have to make the right decision in such a situation. The Halo is the wrong one.

“The FIA has made Formula 1 as safe as it gets. Also the danger of flying wheels is largely eliminated, because the wheels are always more firmly attached.

“The risk to the drivers has become minimal.”

Lauda stressed that introducing Halo would only serve to turn fans away from F1, despite the sport’s best efforts in recent years to try and draw them back in.

“We are just trying hard to get new fans for the sport with fast cars and getting closer to the spectators,” Lauda said.

“Now this is destroyed by an overreaction.”

Hamilton plans to see out Mercedes F1 contract to end of 2018

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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of next season, but speculation had emerged suggesting that a move to Ferrari could be of interest for the Briton as he nears the end of his career, or that he could even opt to retire from racing.

Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.

“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.

“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.

“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.

“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.

“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”

Q&A: Andy Meyrick on McLaren GT4, Ligier LMP3 European balance

Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing
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As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).

Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.

The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.

Meyrick helmet. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.

MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?

Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.

“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.

“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?

AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!

“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”

Bobby Rahal with Dave Price at 2016 Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?

AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.

“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…

AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.

“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.

“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?

AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.

“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?

AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.

“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.

“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.

“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.

“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”

Wehrlein: Sauber F1 set for big C36 upgrade in Hungary

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Sauber is set to bring a sizeable update for its C36 Formula 1 car to the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, according to driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber has been battling at the back of the grid throughout 2017 after years of financial difficulties, limiting the development of its new car.

The team is racing with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals, but it currently sits P9 in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Wehrlein confirmed that Sauber would be bringing a sizeable update package to Budapest, and was positive about the boost it may offer.

“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.

“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”

Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.

“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.

“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.

“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!

“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.

“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”