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.
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.
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.