Distinct F1, Indy differences stand out as Alonso returns to Indy

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Fernando Alonso will be a rookie in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil but he is not, in fact, a rookie to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In truth, he had six somewhat forgettable starts there when the United States Grand Prix was held on the previous configuration of the IMS road course.

And the gap between what Alonso went through then as a 20-something versus today, a 35-year-old getting ready to tackle the biggest race on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, could not be more different.

Alonso failed to finish his first three starts at Indy with Minardi in 2001 and Renault in 2003 and 2004, the latter year having had a memorable crash on the start/finish straight.

He didn’t even get a chance to start what would have been his best chance to win in 2005, owing to the Michelin tire fiasco, as all-Michelin shod cars withdrew after the formation lap.

It was only in 2006 when he finally finished his first U.S. Grand Prix in fifth with Renault and then finished second to then-teammate Lewis Hamilton in 2007 in a Mercedes-powered McLaren, in the last Formula 1 race held at Indianapolis, that Alonso even got on the board at Indy.

INDIANAPOLIS – JUNE 17: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Mercedes races during the F1 Grand Prix of USA at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 17, 2007 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

But he did have memories of the Indianapolis 500 first, and cool as it was to have raced there in September or June in F1, he was never sure whether he’d have the opportunity to race there in May.

“I was concentrating in go karts, not even dreaming about Formula 1 as a child. It all seemed too difficult to reach,” Alonso admitted during the post-practice press conference. “You’re working to grow on the single seaters, and then into Formula 3000. Eventually you arrive to Formula 1 and you are an F1 driver.

“My first Indy memory would be Jacques Villeneuve winning (in 1995) then coming to F1 (a year later in 1996), and then Juan Pablo (Montoya) winning in 2000. Those were the first memories I had from this place.

30 Sep 2001: Minardi driver Fernando Alonso of Spain in action during the US Formula One Grand Prix held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indiana. Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason /Allsport

“When we came here in Formula 1 it was something special. We were racing in the States, which was amazing for Formula 1, and it was the biggest place in the world. I remember the first year I raced here, I took pictures of the entrance. I was taking pictures. I hoped one day to race here in May.”

Alonso took his first step toward that race in May today in his first test session aboard the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry, completing more than 100 laps and finishing his Rookie Orientation Program.

Because Formula 1 doesn’t have anything close to an oval on its calendar, it’s hard to think of an F1 corner that matches any of the four left-handers that make up IMS’ 2.5 miles. Still, Alonso gave his best stab at it when asked.

“Maybe 130R from Suzuka? You’re probably at 320 or 330 kph… I have no idea in mph,” Alonso said. “It feels different. On Formula 1, the feeling of just the steering wheel helps it feel a little bit easier. The level of downforce, sophistication, is that there is a little bit more grip and predictable car.

“But here, it is more raw. It’s more racing. It’s definitely faster and different. We all started in karts or smaller categories. We missed that kind of feeling, where every single millimeter or tenth of second matters. Here, it’s more driver input in different phases of the corner.”

Alonso also noted how the start-up process in IndyCar is vastly different from F1, and significantly quicker.

“Here, they ask if you’re ready, you say yes, switch the car on and you go. In Formula 1, it takes 6 minutes to fire up the car!” Alonso laughed.

“It’s check, re-check. (It’s) so much technology, electronics, hybrid system that needs to be linked with the combustion engine, the brake by wire. Every run gets slowed down by possibilities (that could go wrong) on the car. Here, it is more fun because you switch on the engine, and you race.”

The hardest part of Alonso’s F1-Indy odyssey from a travel and logistics perspective, meanwhile, appears behind him.

Since his announcement on April 12 that he’d be racing in Indianapolis, he has had this travel schedule of locations: Bahrain, Birmingham, Ala., Indianapolis, Sochi, Russia and Indianapolis again, today.

He’ll be back home to his native Spain in the coming days for preparation ahead of his home race, the Spanish Grand Prix (Sunday, May 14, 8 a.m. ET, NBCSN). Immediately after that, he plans to be back in Indianapolis by May 15, where he’ll set up shop for the remainder of the month and miss the Monaco Grand Prix.

For Alonso, this next month comes after a surreal two-month journey of travel since preseason testing for the Formula 1 season began in his native Spain in early March.

“Actually I started in the week before Australia, and I wasn’t coming back to home until after tomorrow when I’m there,” he said.

“So from the first week in March, I’ve been moving. The next four days I will train a bit and relax a little bit. See the family in Spain, be at the Spanish Grand Prix. 

“There’s been a lot of flights, time zone differences, but I’m pretty much OK at the moment.”

Other than the whole, getting used to turning left only, thing.

“Yes it felt new to me! It felt strange, anti-clockwise at those speeds,” Alonso said. “But it’s been a very helpful day in getting to learn all the techniques on driving. I’m happy with this first step.”

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.

Mercedes F1 engine chief warns against underestimating Honda

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Mercedes Formula 1 engine chief Andy Cowell has warned against underestimating the threat of Honda despite its ongoing power unit struggles, tipping the Japanese manufacturer to bounce back in the near future.

Honda returned to F1 as a manufacturer in 2015, supplying V6 turbo power units to the McLaren team, but has struggled for either performance or reliability through that period.

The struggles have led McLaren – currently sat bottom of the constructors’ championship – to consider cutting ties for 2018 given how far adrift compared to the other three engine suppliers Honda has been.

Mercedes has been the benchmark for engine performance since the change in regulation for 2014, but Cowell feels that Honda could make up ground quickly, with the removal of the token system for 2017 helping performance to converge through the field.

“I think collectively we’ve helped with convergence in Formula 1 in the opening season, performance development through the year,” Cowell said.

“But then the opportunity to do a big change with Honda coming in, we all agreed that Honda could have that same opportunity to change everything in the first year and then the request came from manufacturers in addition to Honda saying ‘please can we take this crazy token table away because it’s bad for the sport?’

“It’s bad if somebody can’t train to get better and so we agreed, yeah, take the table away because it’s better for the sport because it means that you can innovate, you can introduce whatever you like.

“I think none of us should underestimate the technical prowess of Honda and of McLaren and I think my money is on that combination coming good and coming good pretty quickly. No pressure…”

Williams happy to ‘hold off’ on 2018 F1 driver decision

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Williams is happy to “hold off” on making a decision on its Formula 1 driver line-up for 2018 as it focuses on improving its on-track displays after a tough start to the season.

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, a mix of experience and youth, but has failed to keep up with midfield front-runner Force India through the first half of the year.

Force India sits fourth in the constructors’ championship with more than double the points of Williams, who leads a tight-knit group down to Renault in eighth place, 15 points adrift.

While Stroll looks set to continue with Williams and Massa has hinted he may look to continue through to 2018 despite initially planning to retire at the end of last season, deputy team boss Claire Williams has confirmed that no decision about next year’s line-up will come any time soon.

“There’s a lot of talk already isn’t there, about drivers across the paddock. For us, we’ve decided we’re going to hold off a bit on our driver decision,” Williams said.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands on the race track at the moment and to be distracted by those kinds of conversations isn’t something that we want to be happening at the moment.

“[Force India’s] got a nice points haul on us at the moment we need to focus on, rather than anything else.”

Nico Rosberg visits Stanford University, considering study options

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2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University after visiting the college earlier this week as part of his tour around California.

Rosberg sensationally announced his retirement from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title last November, wanting to spend more time with his young family.

The German has been enjoying his retirement, recently embarking on a tour of Silicon Valley and California that saw him hold meetings with electric car giant Tesla, among other companies.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Sunday, Rosberg spoke warmly about a visit to Stanford, revealing that he is considering some study options in the near future at the historic institution.

Rosberg was previously offered a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College London when he was younger, only to turn it down in order to embark on a racing career. He also reportedly holds the highest ever score on Williams’ engineering aptitude test.

Should Nico sign up to a course at Stanford, we imagine he’d take things one class at a time…