Q&A: NBCSN’s Townsend Bell on what Fernando Alonso can expect at Indy

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Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. was as far away from the Formula 1 world Fernando Alonso is used to, but it marked the avenue where he could have his first introduction to his new, brief world he’ll be in this May with Andretti Autosport, McLaren and Honda at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Our NBCSN IndyCar analyst and ten-time Indianapolis 500 starter, Townsend Bell, had a chance to speak to Alonso on the grid at Barber (top video, above) and then offer insight as well from the booth with colleagues Leigh Diffey and Paul Tracy there, on what Alonso can expect. Bell also intricately knows the Andretti Autosport team from his driving there last year, and offered this amount of insight.

We caught up with Bell for a quick Q&A for what Alonso has to look forward to in Indianapolis, starting with his first test tomorrow:

MST: How refreshing is it to see someone of Alonso’s caliber come over willingly to do Indy and give up Monaco as a result?

Townsend Bell: “Shocking and refreshing in one swoop. After talking to him in Barber last week I have no doubt this is something he’s very serious about with a clear expectation for success. He has a ‘Senna-like’ quality to his personality that I think is magnetic. Count me among the many that wish him well in the quest.”

MST: From your time in F1 paddocks, how much have you gotten to know Alonso? 

TB: “I used to see him in the Renault F1 hospitality when he was the ‘Reserve Driver.’ He looked positively miserable at having to watch and wait his turn. The sign of a future champion!”

MST: The challenge of Indy is unlike anything else. Are the 230-plus mph speeds going to be something for him to adjust to, or will his bigger challenge be adjusting to dirty air/turbulence?

TB: “Driving in clean air will come naturally. The challenges include, but not limited to: Traffic, momentum, passing, car setup, in cockpit tools, pitstops, restarts, spotters, windy days, temperature change, fan access, Casino night, and Robin Miller. Other than that he should be fine.”

MST: You know the Andretti Autosport atmosphere… how much of a benefit will having all that data sharing among the five other teammates be to him? How much of a surprise will that be that it is so open compared to F1 where it’s beat your teammate?

TB: “It will feel very open and friendly – bizarrely so – until the green flag drops. Then it will feel like he dropped into a World War II dogfight. It gets primal…really fast.”

MST: How much of a culture shock will Indy 500 be to him? Besides the on-track stuff, how do you think he’ll adjust to the constant hounding in the paddock, extracurricular activities, media responsibilities, etc.?

TB: “I might fly out just to watch him enjoy the dairy farmer’s rookie brunch and casino night. Also hope ‘Rocket’ (Kevin Blanch, from INDYCAR’s technical team) makes him run ROP after a full day private test. “We need to see 10 laps at 205 mph or less” Priceless.”

MST: You can’t ever fully prepare for the magnitude of race morning at Indy. Is there anything he can do to simulate that or is it just key for him to soak it all up and savor the moment?

TB: “He’ll love it. 300,000 passionate race fans cheering on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Nothing better.”

Here was Alonso after Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, when yet another Honda power unit issue resigned him to a failure to start:


Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds