Andretti

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)

Alonso’s second day at Indy ‘happier than the first day’

Like a sponge, Alonso soaks up information. Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso’s had quite a 24-to-48-hour period.

He’s gone from qualifying in seventh place for the Spanish Grand Prix to finally finishing his first race of the season a day later, to then flying to Indianapolis and beginning the now two-week odyssey in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And as for how long it took to re-acclimate from his McLaren Honda Formula 1 chassis to his No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti IndyCar?

“It took one corner,” Alonso deadpanned, to a media center full of amused onlookers.

Alonso only completed 55 laps today – 35 in the two-hour Rookie Orientation Program/refresher program and 20 in the afternoon session – and later explained that he was not able to complete his full program owing to rear suspension issues. He ran more than 100 in his first day in the car on May 3.

That meant that in “happy hour” – the last hour of practice where conditions start to cool and are generally ideal for race preparation – Alonso’s car was back in the garage and he was unable to get much running in traffic.

Nonetheless, lack of traffic running aside, Alonso said that knowing what to expect from his Dallara DW12 chassis and Honda aero kit and power unit was comforting on a day when conditions were different.

It was significantly warmer today than it was on May 3, by more than 20 degrees ambient and similar range in track temperatures. It was also windier today.

Alonso prepares for an early run. Photo: IndyCar

Alonso explained the differences.

“I was a little bit concerned about the conditions, about the temperature, much hotter today than the test we did here on the 3rd. But no, the car felt good, felt as good as in the test, and I was able to make some setup changes, yeah, without, as I said, losing the confidence in the car. Everything went very smooth,” Alonso said.

“The last half an hour maybe we had some issues with the rear suspension, and we could not complete the program that we was planning to run a little bit in traffic at the end of the day, so we missed that part, but overall it was an amazing day.

“Happier than the first day with the car because I was able to feel some of the setup changes that we were planning in the morning, and yeah, I feel good.

“Not much running in traffic, so still the thing that I need to go through in the next couple of days, so that is something we need to chase tomorrow in the program. But I did two or three laps behind some cars that were going out of pit lane, and it was good fun, so I’m looking forward, and running along is enough.”

Despite the long travels to Indianapolis, and then meeting fans at both the airport and outside his garage in Gasoline Alley, Alonso was immediately reacquainted with his IndyCar once he was back behind the wheel.

“You jump in the car, you are in that sitting position that is different compared to Formula 1. You have this headrest that you have the padding here, so you have no movement at all to look right, left.

“You just remind yourself exactly what you were driving two weeks ago, so you go flat out and you know what is going to happen. So it took really no time to switch on from one to another.”

Alonso also had time to debrief with Mario Andretti, and what was originally just a quick chat then turned into more than an hour worth of conversation.

“Yeah, well, he went to the pit lane just to say hello, but he was — he knew that we were testing at that point, so it was just a formal hello,” Alonso said.

“But later in the garage, lunchtime, we were talking for more than one hour and a half, so we went through many, many things, from Formula 1 to talk about the tires here, how they perform, to talk about the tires in Formula 1.

“We were talking about the two-seater that he will run on Monday he said, and he’s preparing that run in a proper way, so if I was one of the guests, I will be worried because he will push to the limit that car!

“He’s an amazing person and a true legend in motorsports, so every comment, every word that he says is obviously very, very important for all of us, and inside the team we are extremely proud and happy to work with him.”

Lastly, Alonso seems set to focus on race setup this week, and whether he qualifies higher up the grid or not is not as important as ensuring he has the best possible car in traffic for the race.

“Yeah, it’s completely right. I think in my case, qualifying is not very important,” he said. “Obviously, you know, when you are out there, you want to be fast. You want to feel fast, as well, so it’s a question of enjoyment, not only the position, the final position.

“But yeah, I think all the priority for us in my garage is to set up the car for the race, to feel comfortable in traffic, to learn as much as I can, you know, the way to overtake, the place to overtake, how you lose the minimum time possible in those maneuvers.”

Alonso remains humble to the task as he continues the learning process.

“You know, many things that I don’t know now and I need to learn quickly. So yeah, let’s see what we can do in qualifying, but definitely the race preparation will be the first priority.”

Alonso finally finishes in home GP, now heads to Indy (VIDEO)

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After his tough start to the Formula 1 season, Fernando Alonso finally finished a race in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, his race on home soil.

Alonso starred with seventh place on the grid but didn’t have the race pace to back it up in his McLaren Honda. Even with some notable retirements ahead of him, he finished in 12th place, albeit ahead of both Williams Mercedes.

That being said, Alonso was thrilled to have at least enough positive momentum from one good race and a somewhat promising weekend by 2017 standards in Barcelona. He now heads immediately to Indianapolis, where he’ll be set to take part in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“It has been a good weekend in general. A positive. At the moment we finished the race. Hopefully this is a first step forward on reliability. There was not the pace to be in the points

“At end of the day we had too much tire difference. For passing, I was with new softs, and Williams on old mediums.”

Alonso is now airport-bound as he’ll be looking to get the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as quick as possible on Monday, for his first run since his test on May 3.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice challenge,” he said. “First of all, 9 a.m. I need to be at the circuit and 12 I need to be in the car for practice! So it’s nine hours in the plane, flying overnight to Indianapolis.

“Tomorrow morning I’ll be ready to change my mind and get into the Indianapolis driving mentality. I think it will be a great event. I will enjoy it to the maximum. The performance… I think will come naturally.

“I will enjoy as much as I can, every single minute of the next two weeks.”

Johnny Rutherford joins McLaren Indy entry as team ambassador

Photo: McLaren
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The big names just keep on growing for the McLaren Honda Andretti entry that will field Fernando Alonso in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, better known as “Lone Star JR” in his driving days, has joined as the team’s official ambassador, which he’s free to do now as he’s not engaged in official INDYCAR duties as the pace car driver. Rutherford was succeeded by Sarah Fisher in that role starting last year.

Rutherford will then don a McLaren team shirt and kit in his role and will be the team’s “guest of honor.” He was part of the joint IMS/NBCSN live stream last week for Alonso’s first test on the 2.5-mile oval, sharing stories and insight with Mario Andretti, Robin Miller and Kevin Lee.

Rutherford’s three wins at Indianapolis came in 1974, 1976 and 1980 – the first two with McLaren driving a Papaya Orange-liveried McLaren M16D, a feat he repeated in ’76, driving a similarly liveried M16E. In 1980 he was in the famous Chaparral 2K ground-effect car, which was designed by the British engineer John Barnard, who later became McLaren’s pioneering technical director in the early 1980s.

Auto Racing: Indianapolis 500: Johnny Rutherford (3) in action during race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indianapolis, IN 5/25/1974CREDIT: John G. Zimmerman (Photo by John G. Zimmerman /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)(Set Number: X18662 )

“The McLaren name still means a lot to me – it has a very special place in my heart, in fact, for obvious reasons,” Rutherford said in a release. “So when I heard that not only was McLaren heading back to Indianapolis – after a near 40-year absence, and with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel, and that they would also be reviving the same, famous orange livery that was made famous by Bruce McLaren himself in the 1960s and ’70s – well, I was blown away. That’s just neat, real neat…

“I’m thrilled and excited about ‘coming home’ to McLaren for the famous month of May, and I want to do everything I can to help make the team’s return to Indy as enjoyable and successful as possible. Make no mistake, this is a fantastic story for IndyCar, for Formula 1 and for motor racing in general, so to be able to help play a small part in it is just fantastic.

“And the fact that McLaren is doing it in partnership with Andretti Autosport is the icing on the cake: the name ‘Andretti’ means a lot to all racing people, and certainly to me. Not only has the team boss, Michael, achieved so much over his long career, but of course I raced his father, the great Mario, wheel to wheel for many years. I have great respect for both of them. I think everyone does.”

McLaren Technology Group Executive Director Zak Brown added, “You can count the number of people who’ve won more Indy 500s than Johnny Rutherford on the fingers of one hand – and that tells you everything about the scale of Lone Star JR’s achievements in this legendary motor race.

“I’ve spoken before about the special family atmosphere that exists at McLaren, and it’s incredible that we’ll be joined at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month of May by one of the forefathers of McLaren’s original Indy adventure.

“Furthermore, Johnny is a real Southern gent, and somebody who knows the nature of this particular race and the Speedway like few others in the sport. To have him onboard and alongside us as we take on this ambitious project makes me feel both humbled and excited – he’ll be a fantastic asset to us all as we return the McLaren name to Indy.”

Michael Andretti added a more humorous anecdote to the story.

“I had the honor of racing with Johnny early in my career and always regarded him as one of the legends of our sport,” Andretti said. “We share similarities having both driven with McLaren – I even got the opportunity to witness his acting abilities when we appeared together on an episode of Home Improvement, and can say he’s a better racer than actor!

“I am looking forward to working alongside Johnny as he joins us as ambassador to the McLaren-Honda-Andretti effort.”

DiZinno: Alonso’s test proves overkill, occasionally, is good (VIDEO)

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It’s been said before that watching testing is the racing equivalent of watching paint dry. The days are long, arduous, monotonous and more often than not, boring.

Calls to televise or stream test days are often met with a shrug or “you’re kidding” from the production staff. The reasoning is that there’s a lot more behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting the cameras up, getting the feed live and paying the production costs than is worth the ROI. You’re lucky if you hit four digits worth of people on site for a test day.

Which then makes what happened yesterday both all the more staggering, and all the more impressive.

Tens of thousands of people around the world stopped what they were doing, or multi-tasked the hell out of their days, to watch a test that wasn’t even a full test. It was one car and one driver only.

This, indeed, is the true power of Fernando Alonso and what his star power is bringing to this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And it’s the first tangible, statistical measure that Zak Brown and McLaren’s gamble to bring the two-time World Championship-winning Spaniard over to America for a shot at the race on Alonso’s own request will indeed pay off in metrics.

Photo: IndyCar

The day began first with a social media blitz to reveal the car’s livery, similar to what McLaren did for its F1 launch in the middle of the night in February earlier this year. The drama was whether this time, with a rare second chance to get it right, McLaren would actually nail the proper color of papaya orange. These are the key details… clearly.

But the livery launch worked. Already, the buzz was going with the car going for a simpler look than the busy, Arrows or Spyker-esque, knockoff orange and black that adorns the McLaren MCL32 Honda on the Formula 1 grid this year.

That came with the full photo shoot, Alonso, the car and helmet now having been revealed in full kit to the world to know what he’d be wearing when the stream started.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

The anticipation built. Before the test had even started and NBCSN’s Kevin Lee moderated the live stream, posted on INDYCAR’s YouTube and Facebook channels in addition to embeds via IMS and the IndyCar Race Control website, as well as simulcast here via the NBC Sports App, the YouTube feed alone had 34,000 viewers watching Lee host while Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford were adding insight and telling stories, while pitching back-and-forth with Robin Miller on pit lane.

Even in an absolute best-case scenario of 15,000 fans on site at Phoenix this past weekend for a race – and the number was likely much lower than that – that was already at least double the number of people paying to watch a race in the grandstands than were watching in whatever clothes they had on at their home or work to watch Alonso’s first crack at the Speedway, on the Internet. And that was just the YouTube figure, to say nothing of Facebook and our NBCSN feed here, which only adds to the numbers.

The number, like Alonso’s speeds as he got more comfortable, grew greater. It surpassed the 50,000 watching threshold, where it stayed most of the rest of the day. It exploded past 75,000 not long after Marco Andretti had completed his shakedown run in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry and Alonso was set to take over for his first running.

By the end of the day, INDYCAR had sent a message saying its Facebook Live streaming coverage had attracted more than 1 million views and 800,000 unique viewers. A total number of more than 2 million hits was achieved between the YouTube and Facebook numbers. It was entirely unique circumstances, but no less staggering.

And it says something about the quality of the IMS Productions presentation and the presenters on screen – which had to have come together quickly as word this test would be streamed was only announced to the world on Monday, with NBCSN’s late add confirmed on Tuesday – that the number of viewers continued to escalate with anticipation rather than going down.

F1 teams chimed in on Twitter, even as the official F1 Twitter account was conspicuously silent.

Mercedes, Renault and Sahara Force India were but several that joked they wouldn’t dare think of releasing news now, for Alonso, McLaren and Honda – and for once, IndyCar – was winning the racing Internet.

Joking hashtags began to emerge beyond the official one of #AlonsoRunsIndy. The overkill of Alonso-mania was in full tilt.

And yet for every amount of snark offered asking how much Alonso was too much Alonso, the amount of disappointment (and justifiably) that Stefan Wilson doesn’t have a ride as a result of this, and the cries over whether a NASCAR star or the Taylor brothers might have been better for metrics, there was positivity ringing out to drown on the doubters.

Positivity? Numbers? For an IndyCar live stream?

The overkill was justified. Because for a one-day, one-car, rookie test, it had to be.

With no disrespect to the other three confirmed rookies in this year’s field, Ed Jones, Zach Veach and Jack Harvey – the last of whom is actually one of Alonso’s teammates – none has the name recognition or appeal beyond the most ardent, diehard of IndyCar fans who’ve paid explicit attention to the Mazda Road to Indy and Indy Lights where all three have won races and in Jones’ case, a championship. Where they could afford to feel aggrieved today was in seeing Alonso practice some of the procedural items – pit lane entry off Turn 4 and yellow flag simulations being two examples – since those aren’t official parts of ROP.

Alonso, however? He’s a rookie in name only, same as Kurt Busch was years earlier. He had the eyes of the F1 world watching along with the IndyCar world. And if Wednesday proved anything, it’s that the number of eyeballs from that aforementioned F1 world were locked in in a laser-focus unlike anything IndyCar could begin to generate from its own.

But while Wednesday was awesome from an overkill standpoint, with Alonso dominating all the stories, all the headlines and all the videos, the challenge from here is ensuring the overkill does not supersede the rest of the month – and how Alonso fits into it.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

As a similar and recent example, Jeff Gordon ran this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona as part of the Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R with the aforementioned Taylor brothers, Ricky and Jordan, and the retiring Max Angelelli. Gordon’s name, inevitably, drew headlines from beyond the specialist sports car media that covers the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship full-time, which was a good thing… except that it wasn’t.

By Gordon’s presence existing at the Rolex 24, it allowed the focus for some to be only on Gordon instead of fitting Gordon into a greater editorial plan. And perhaps, that’s by design. However the story of the Taylors’ win was not about Gordon’s presence in the car, but rather it was the Taylors’ breakthrough after years of heartbreak and in particular, Ricky Taylor’s star turn on his own. And with three other class winners, including Chip Ganassi’s Ford GT in its second straight 24-hour race and two youthful lineups in the pro-am classes, there were plenty of other great stories to write as well.

Alonso actually said it well yesterday in the post-practice press conference when he described how he fits into the overall sphere of the race.

Photo: IndyCar

“At the moment I’m coming to have a great experience, that’s for sure. You cannot lose that perspective and that target. It’s one of the best races in the world and you’re one of the 33 drivers on the grid. After that, when you close the visor on Sunday or in qualifying, you don’t like when you are in second.

“It’s the same in every sport. NBA players, they’re doing the playoffs. Sure they enjoy they’re in, but if they lose the game, they’re trying to recover for the next day. First priority is to enjoy the experience and the event, but we are all competitive drivers. We are here to do the best we can.”

Alonso is one of 33 drivers. He is the mega star in this year’s race and provides a massive bump to the race’s worldwide interest, but he is not the only story line. We’ve had four winners in four races to kick off the year, plus we have at least six past Indianapolis 500 champions in the field.

Over the course of this month, ensuring Alonso doesn’t hog the spotlight but is highlighted along with the stars of the full-season championship, and his other trio of rookies, will be key to the overall success of this race beyond May itself.

Alas, Wednesday was his day to be singularly under the spotlight, because no one else was there to take it away.

Photo: IndyCar