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: