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de Ferran, Rutherford impressed by Alonso’s Indy 500 effort

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Unsurprisingly, the dominant storyline of the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by Penngrade Motor Oil is the presence of Fernando Alonso. “Alonso Mania” has taken over Indianapolis Motor Speedway in every sense imaginable, with the other 32 competitors even fielding questions about how they believe he’ll do and what advice they would offer him.

And despite his lack of experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and at ovals in general (he had never been on an oval prior to his May 3 test at the Speedway), Alonso has acclimated himself quickly. His speeds have steadily gotten quicker all week and he made it into the Fast Nine Shootout after posting the seventh fastest average speed during Saturday qualifying.

Two former “500” winners chimed in on “Alonso Mania” this weekend, both of whom are involved in the Alonso/McLaren venture. In separate press conferences with the media, Gil de Ferran (2003 Indy 500 winner) and Johnny Rutherford (three-time Indy 500 winner; 1974, 1976, and 1980) expressed positive thoughts about Alonso’s time so far.

“To be honest, I think Fernando has slotted very well into the Andretti camp and the whole Andretti team culture,” said de Ferran, who has been coaching Alonso all week. “(He) really fit right in. There’s been a lot of exchange between all the drivers. Everything has been very positive.”

De Ferran, who first raced at Indianapolis in 1995, even detailed his own experience as a rookie, and how uncomfortable he was, which highlights how strong Alonso has been on debut.

“I came here in ’95 for the first time. I found it quite difficult,” de Ferran revealed. “The cars were very powerful back then, didn’t have a lot of downforce. It was even hard to go flat at the time. Even though we had a lot of practice, believe me, I needed all the practice.”

Fernando Alonso during Fast Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Johnny Rutherford, who joined the McLaren effort as an ambassador earlier this month and has won two Indy 500s under the McLaren banner, offered his thoughts on Saturday during a press conference of his own, and he did not seem surprised that Alonso has acclimated himself quickly to both track and car.

“He is a professional race driver, and he’s won the world title twice, and it shows,” Rutherford said of Alonso’s progression. “He had done very good in his tests. He just (rifled) through his driver’s test; at the end of the day he ran 220 mph or 222, I think.”

“Lone Star JR” added that the quality of Andretti Autosport and its Honda package has been instrumental in Alonso’s development. “It says a lot for the cars. They’re pretty stable. I look for him to do very well,” he asserted.

(Original Caption) Johnny Rutherford waves after he won the 58th Indianapolis 500 Race, 5/26. Rutherford’s wife, Betty, is left.

As of writing, Rutherford is likely one of the few people who hasn’t yet had a chance to speak with Alonso. But, when that time comes, he certainly will have some advice to give.

“It’s little things that he needs to think about,” he said regarding potential advice. “He’s a race driver, a good race driver. He just needs to think about traffic and some things that can happen. This is a long race: 500 miles, right at three hours. You’ve got to really pace yourself and be at the right place at the right time at the end. And that all comes with pit stops.”

Rutherford added, “I tell the rookies: If you can run a good steady race all day and have good pit stops without any major problems happening, you can finish in the top five here pretty easily. You know, just be there, because that’s the way it unfolds if you look at the records.”

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Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.