The experience, not the result, defines Alonso’s Indy 500 odyssey

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INDIANAPOLIS – It almost had to end the way it did on Sunday.

There was Fernando Alonso, doing what he’d set out to do in this six-week odyssey since stunning the motorsports world on April 12 with the announcement he’d be in a McLaren Honda of an IndyCar kind at the Indianapolis 500, with Andretti Autosport, reminding everyone he’s still one of the best drivers in the world after a month where he never looked a rookie in his first oval race, his first IndyCar race.

And yet there was the plume of smoke, just short of the finish, billowing out the rear of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry that ended his day before he got the result.

The combination of mid-2010s Alonso, McLaren and Honda joined with the legacy of the words “Andretti is slowing” at Indianapolis to produce Alonso, in a McLaren, Honda, Andretti entry slowing and stopping just shy of that ever elusive checkered flag.

It mattered not. Alonso still lived up to all the hype placed on him this month, if not exceeded it.

From the moment Alonso made his first visit to Birmingham, Ala. of all places – as far away by mileage and culture from the Bahrain Grand Prix he had failed to finish a week earlier – Alonso was the focus of attention, even as his primary goal was to integrate into the team and begin the learning process.

The simulator work followed in Indianapolis shortly thereafter, following his seat fit and meeting the crew who’d be on his No. 29 car, in the right shade of papaya orange, not the F1 version that slightly missed the mark.

He met the Borg-Warner Trophy, a trophy he was keen to see his face placed on.

And then, he hit the Speedway for the first time on May 3, in a made-for-digital event that was the test heard ’round the Internet. Going 222-plus mph for an average on his first day in the car, as he joked at the time his right foot and brain weren’t in sync, still showcased his innate talent.

Alonso never looked uncomfortable, out of place or – importantly – annoyed with the process that came with coming to Indianapolis.

At every opportunity, he embraced the challenge, the fans and the odyssey that came with it.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, races during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If there were autographs to be signed – and judging by the throngs of fans surrounding his garage area or his daily walk to Gasoline Alley – he’d do as best he could to get them all before being whisked away to whatever came next. Or, alternatively, he got on his skateboard and rolled off.

If there were media obligations to be had – and as some drivers casually threw some snark, as Conor Daly and Graham Rahal joked “Alonso was about the only driver in the race” – Alonso fulfilled them. A bevy of reporters were consistently around his No. 29 pit stall all month. More still sat and waited in the media center for his press conferences, and where Alonso starred there was that he never appeared he was mailing it in. The banter between he and Alexander Rossi – when Rossi noted Alonso needed to be awake at 6 a.m. – was perhaps the funniest moment of the month.

He sat for an hour on media day with hundreds gathered around his space as poor Sebastian Saavedra sitting next to him had but one reporter – me – asking him questions ahead of another debut, Saavedra’s Juncos Racing team.

And most importantly, if there was a desire to be the best on track he could be, he fulfilled it.

Alonso learned the elements of single-car runs in practice, race running in practice, drafting with his Andretti Autosport teammates in the “mini packs,” the pressure that comes with four-lap qualifying runs and averaging more than 230 mph, the drama that comes with engine changes in IndyCar, and then the ability to push as hard as possible against other drivers on track.

He made some daring and some would probably say questionable chops and passing maneuvers throughout the month, but wasn’t that part of the plan to begin with? Seeing Alonso back in a car that could win and knowing he had the ability to pull it off made the whole experience worth it.

He made it to the lead by Lap 37 of Sunday’s race, for the first of 27 laps led, third most among the 15 drivers who did. After starting fifth and taking it easy on the start to drop to ninth, Alonso was a top-five regular the rest of the race (more than 100 laps to be more precise), before he was running in seventh on Lap 179 and there, the smoke erupted. He was classified 24th.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, races during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

He exited the car to cheers from the Indianapolis faithful, who are not easy to please at your first attempt. But the cheers that echoed around these hallowed grounds welcomed a driver who’d starred himself, for McLaren, and for the Indianapolis 500 – even if the result was a similar one he’s been used to this year.

“Anyway, (it) was a great experience, the last two weeks. 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,” Alonso reflected Sunday.

“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500, you know. One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if Zak or someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home.

“Thanks to IndyCar, 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.”

Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology Group and the man who was integral in bringing Alonso and McLaren to Indianapolis, could only echo those thoughts.

“If we put aside the last 20 laps, which is a massive disappointment, if we reflect back on the past month, it was outstanding. Fernando didn’t put a wheel wrong. He showed what a world class world champion he is today.

“When Fernando and I first spoke about the Indianapolis 500, I wasn’t sure what Fernando’s response would be because I think not many race car drivers in this world are brave enough to do what Fernando just did. Not just from a physical standpoint, but the whole world was watching Fernando race today. He put himself out there and exposed himself, delivered the goods, which isn’t a surprise to anyone that has watched Fernando race.”

Alonso has left the door open to a return, although that will likely depend on how his F1 future sorts itself out – he’s a free agent at year’s end. But he figures he’ll be better in a second go-’round.

“Obviously if I come back here, at least I know how it is (with) everything,” he said. “It will not be the first time I do restarts, pit stops, all these kind of things. So will be an easier, let’s say, adaptation. Let’s see what happen in the following years.

“Yeah, I need to keep pursuing this challenge because winning the Indy 500 is not completed. It holds a new challenge if I can find a car that slow me down somehow.”

Lastly, Alonso did have some milk – albeit in a slightly different type of container than the one teammate Takuma Sato had as he won the race.

“Thank you for all media. I didn’t won, but I will drink a little bit of milk,” he laughed, as he drank out of a tiny milk carton usually served in schools or lunch boxes.

“You followed me for two weeks every single minute, but I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the welcoming. See you in Austin.”

And with that, the odyssey of Alonso at Indianapolis has completed its first chapter.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, walks away from his car after his engine expired during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.