INDIANAPOLIS – Great as the story of Fernando Alonso racing at this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is – and it is – it is not the only story of note this year.
The contrast between the amount of Alonso coverage and the amount of coverage for the other 32 drivers and cars competing here is stark, and that contrast has been arguably the most interesting part of the week.
As of Friday morning, each of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ established “big three” teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – had held a press conference and with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing all having two drivers in, and then cameos from Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Jay Howard (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Gabby Chaves (Harding Racing), most of the field has been in for interviews.
The line that the drivers are thinking but not saying publicly unless it is in a joking manner is that Alonso is the only driver racing this year. Both Conor Daly (Foyt) and Graham Rahal (RLL) have made that crack in their press conferences. Others in and around the field have expressed private concerns or frustration about Alonso’s presence dominating the story lines – for better or worse.
The story of Alonso racing at Indy now shifts from the shockwaves of announcing he’s doing it to the reality of him being on track, and that’s been what’s interesting to monitor as the week has progressed.
Alonso has not been tentative, that’s for sure. The driver of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry has made two rather eye-popping three-wide passes – first on past winners Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske earlier this week, and then on Castroneves and Karam later. He’s also been unafraid to stick it down the inside at both Turns 1 and 3, and this morning, had a hairy moment exiting Turn 4.
After Thursday’s practice, Alonso said his comfort level in traffic is getting there, as he’s felt confident enough in the team around him to give proper feedback for changes.
“I was (running) behind a car just a couple of seconds in front, but we (tried some laps) without any car in front. We tested a couple of different trims and different setup options,” Alonso said Thursday. “The car felt quite OK from the very beginning of the morning, but then I think we did improve it during the day, so I’m quite happy.
“We worked still a lot on the race situation, keeping other guys out there and running in traffic. I think we found a good balance for traffic. I think tomorrow (Friday) we will concentrate a little bit more alone on qualifying, but the priority is the race.”
Beyond the two-time Formula 1 World Champion, the story lines do not revolve around any one dominant driver or team.
Thus far Marco Andretti, Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Jay Howard have been the four end-of-day practice leaders, and Sebastien Bourdais was fastest this morning before rain has hit the IMS track, and it remains to be seen whether more “Fast Friday” running will occur.
As Alonso goes, it seems so do questions about Honda reliability. Five engine issues for the manufacturer have brought reliability into the framework, but it also balances out the fact the Hondas have undoubted speed this year, and more capable bullets in the gun. Of its 18 entries, you could say at least a dozen of them have a realistic chance at great finishes, whereas with Chevrolet, about eight of its 15 entries seem poised to threaten the leaders.
Questions to ponder from here include these:
- How can Honda balance reliability with its power? Will they have to risk turning the power levels down in order to keep the reliability there?
- When might Team Penske show its full hand? The five drivers today were all on the dais and have locked in a laser focus for the race, and all are so dedicated to the singular goal of delivering Roger Penske a 17th Indianapolis 500 champion.
- How can Ganassi continue to extract the maximum for its Honda kit in its first superspeedway race with it? Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are past winners and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton seem poised to overachieve.
- Of the six Andrettis, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato look great, Alonso has looked good, and Alexander Rossi has been quietly lurking. Marco Andretti started strong but has seemed to regress. Rookie Jack Harvey has endured a rough week. Where do the Andretti six-pack of drivers shake out?
- Is Carpenter poised to emerge ahead in the Chevrolet camp?
- Does RLL have a surprise up its sleeve with Rahal and Oriol Servia, Servia in particular as he is working with last year’s race-winning engineer in Tom German? It’s the same story for SPM, where James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin have had interesting weeks and Howard has probably been the week’s biggest surprise.
- How much will it rain the next few days, and how will it affect qualifying?
These stories, and more, will be set to play out over the next 48 to 72 hours.