Alonso’s first test day Indy both real and spectacular (VIDEO)

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For parts of three years, there has been a part of Fernando Alonso frequently absent from his physical being: his smile.

But that was back in full on Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on an important and productive afternoon in his first day in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the sixth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Following Marco Andretti’s shakedown this morning, Alonso completed 110 laps at the 2.5-mile oval, just 27 fewer than he’s completed in four Grands Prix (50 in Australia, 33 in China and 54 in Bahrain, before failing to start in Russia) this season as power unit woes have saddled the otherwise promising reunion of McLaren and Honda.

The 275 miles completed brought the smile and more back to Alonso on his first day in an IndyCar, because the program outlined took on multiple components.

He first had to complete the Rookie Orientation Program, which had been moved up for him to today to get that complete as a rookie test day allotted per the INDYCAR Rulebook (no different than what Kurt Busch did in 2013, prior to being confirmed for the 2014 race, INDYCAR Race Director Brian Barnhart confirmed on the joint IMS/NBCSN live web stream).

Those saw the methodical speed improvements as he first ran from the 205 to 210 mph range for 10 laps, then 15 laps apiece in the 210 to 215 bracket and 15 more in the 215-plus bracket. He ultimately ended with a best speed of 222.548 mph after 110 laps.

But additionally, the day provided an opportunity for Alonso to get comfortable with the car, the track, the downforce settings, the power unit and the Andretti team from a working setting.

It left Alonso high on life at various points throughout the day.

“It was fun! It was a good way to start to build the speed. It was a little bit difficult at the beginning to meet the minimum,” Alonso told Robin Miller during the joint IMS/NBCSN live stream after his first run in the car. “Now we can put some laps and feel a bit of a the car. Right now the car is driving myself;  I’m not driving the car.

“It was so far a good experience. Now it starts the real deal.”

As track conditions changed, on what was already a cool day with ambient temperatures only hovering in the mid-50-degree range and track temperatures not much warmer, Alonso got a chance to see how the wind affected his running.

Alonso then delivered the early line of the day in his second post-run interview with Miller.

“At the beginning I have to be honest, the right foot has its own brain; it was not connected with my brain!” Alonso laughed. “The right foot has its own life. Right now I’m more in control with my own body.”

After 88 laps it looked like Alonso would be done for the day. Weather appeared to be coming from the West and the team took the car back to Gasoline Alley to make setup changes.

But instead the team shifted from its initial plan. Barnhart explained per the INDYCAR Rulebook that five sets of Firestone tires would be available today for Alonso to run with. Two further sets would be allotted for what when then be termed a refresher program on Monday, May 15, in the two hours that kick off the first day of official practice for the Indianapolis 500. By tapping into a sixth set as the team ultimately did, that limits the number of tires he can run that Monday.

The team, which features team principal Michael Andretti as Alonso’s strategist, technical director Eric Bretzman as his engineer and 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion and two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran as a driver coach, instead coached Alonso through more running where he could simulate yellow flag conditions, different engine maps and pit entries and exits.

Alonso had one close call near the end of the day when entering Turn 3, his two front tires struck two birds. While trying to avoid one, he hit two more.

“I saw one bird approaching Turn 3 in the penultimate run. I just lifted and avoided the bird,” Alonso said in the post-practice press conference. “Hopefully, I avoid that on the race day. I saved one but not the other two. Those two, I didn’t notice.”

But birds aside, the day was a chance for Alonso to acclimate and live out the reality of this dream for the first time – in what already has been an odyssey and in what will continue to be one over the coming 25 days until race day on May 28.

“It felt new to me! It felt strange, going anti-clockwise at those speeds,” Alonso said. “We went through the rookie orientation program at those speeds. It really helps the way you build your speed and get up to speed. Later in the day we were able to do some runs for myself to get familiar with the setup changes. Some of the procedures, even. We had some drops of rain on the visor. We were on the pace car simulation. We did a lot of procedures.

“It’s been a very helpful day in getting to learn all the techniques on driving. I’m happy with this first step.”

Alonso said his prior simulator work with Honda, completed after his trip to Birmingham, Ala. at Barber Motorsports Park and before he flew to Sochi, Russia for last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, provided a more than accurate depiction of what to expect. The only thing that threw him, he said, was how narrow the track is – and that’s without fans.

“I think what I felt in the car was more or less what I expected,” he said. “Thanks to the simulator test in the last couple weeks. It’s quite realistic.

“Now the track, it’s narrower than what I thought. (On) television, you see three cars aside on the straight. Now you’re in a car on the main straight.”

Alonso said once he saw Marco Andretti able to go flat from the off, the racer in him wanted to do the same.

“Marco was flat in Turn 1, so I wanted to do flat in Turn 1,” Alonso said. “I arrived at Turn 1 and I was convinced I was doing flat out… but the foot was not flat out. The brain was not connected with my foot at that moment. But the second lap was very good feeling.

“To be able to feel the respect of the place, the respect of the car, the respect of the speed, is something for any racing driver is pure adrenaline. It was a good day.”

And a day, it turned out, to remember.

Eli Tomac wins Budds Creek, clinches 2019 championship

Vanessa O'Brien (KawasakiUSA)
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Last week Eli Tomac suffered through his worst race of the season and gave Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin a glimmer of hope were the championship was concerned.

On Lap 1 of Moto 1, Tomac did his best to dash that hope. Justin Bogle grabbed the hole shot, but Tomac swept past him immediately and surged to victory.

Moto 2 was much the same. Tomac grabbed the early lead and set his sights on earning maximum points for the weekend. By the end of Moto 2, Tomac had a 15 second lead over Jason Anderson to score his third perfect victory of the season. Tomac also scored a 1-1 at Pala and Washougal.

That was not Tomac’s only victory, however.

With two minutes remaining in Moto 2, Anderson and Marvin Musquin passed Ken Roczen.  That dropped Roczen to 54 points behind Tomac at the time and only elevated Musquin to a 50-point differential. Musquin needed one more position to be able to deny Tomac the championship for one more week, but he was 10 second behind Anderson and unable to make up the gap by the end.

“I didn’t know (I had won the championship) until the last lap,” Tomac said after the race. “I thought I needed one more spot on everyone. I’m just in complete shock right now. All we did today was put our head forward (and) put last week in the past. … Gosh what a way to finish it off. 1-1; it was so cool.”

Tomac is the first rider to win three consecutive championships since Ricky Carmichael won six in a row from 2000-2006.

In Moto 1, Tomac narrowly edged his two points’ rivals. Roczen finished second in that race with Musquin in third.

“It was so special,” Tomac said after he was handed the No. 1 plate that he will affix to his Kawasaki throughout next season. “So many things had to go our way this weekend with having a 1-1 and beating the two guys behind us in second and third (in Moto 1).

Anderson’s pass on Roczen late in Moto 2 was significant for another reason. With a 4-2, he scored a second overall to stand on the podium for the fourth time this season. In doing so, he matched his best finish from RedBud.

“For me, I’m just trying to build my base going into the next Supercross season,” Anderson said afterward. “I feel like I’m getting better.”

Finishing third in both motos was bittersweet equaled a third overall for Musquin. He climbed to second in the points with that finish and if he is able to stay there following next week’s Ironman, it will be the third straight year that he has finished behind Tomac.

Roczen faded to seventh in Moto 2 and with his 2-7 he finished fourth overall. It was a fitting end to his championship hopes because Roczen has faded at the ends of events all season long.

Zach Osborne (5-4) rounded out the top five.

450 Moto 1 Results
450 Moto 2 Results
450 Overall Results
Points Standings

It’s fair to call Shane McElrath’s 1-1 victory a surprise. Perhaps one can even go so far as to call it a shocker. Entering Budds Creek, McElrath had not stood on the podium yet this year. In fact, he has only one top-five finish that came at Spring Creek two weeks ago.

McElrath got off to an early lead in Moto 1, passing then-leader Ty Masterpool on Lap 3 and refusing to look over his shoulder. It was his first moto victory since Washougal last year and there was speculation about whether he could match that performance. If anything, McElrath looked even better in Moto 2 and he cruised to a 7.7 second lead at the checkers.

McElrath may have been the only rider who was not surprised by the performance and he summed up the drastic uptick in his post-race interview.

“One word: just perseverance,” McElrath said. “It’s been a real test of our faith this year. A real test of our strength. It’s been humbling for sure. … My results this year haven’t been what we wanted, but we just kept at it.”

With a 2-5, Adam Cianciarulo finished second overall despite a disappointing second moto.

He was much better in Moto 1, but even that race had drama. Four minutes into Moto 1, Cianciarulo rode off course and high sided on a berm. He dropped from second to fifth. He climbed into third by Lap 6, but it took the entire race before he would reclaim second.

At the end of Moto 1, Cianciarulo was optimistic about his weekend.

“I’m just doing the best I can,” Cianciarulo said on NBC Sports Gold. “I just want a good result on the day and that’s how I’m looking at it, taking it moto by moto. I’m just disappointed in how I rode there at the beginning.

“Masterpool was riding really good and I just got out of my rhythm. The track’s really slick so you can’t override it – and I really was – I just wasn’t riding good. But I’m glad I was able to calm down and take a breath, make some passes back – get to where I needed to be.

“Championship aside, I really want to do the best I can every moto. … If I leave it all out there, whether I win or lose, I can go to bed at night and sleep just fine.”

Justin Cooper ended the day with a 6-2, which was good enough for third overall. It was not good enough to keep his title hopes alive, however. Ending the day 60 points behind Cianciarulo, he has been mathematically eliminated from contention.

Dylan Ferrandis is now the only rider who can challenge Cianciarulo, but he needs to make up six points in Moto 1 at Ironman Raceway next week to keep the pressure on. Like Cianciarulo, Ferrandis’ day was not without incident. In Moto 2, Mitchell Falk got turned around early in the race and knocked Ferrandis down while he was running 11th at the time – one position behind Cianciarulo.

The two points leaders were able to slice through traffic and Ferrandis eventually prevailed over his rival, but he could manage only a fourth-place finish at the checkers. With a 4-4, he finished fourth overall.

RJ Hampshire (3-8) rounded out the top five.

In Moto 1, Masterpool led his first professional laps. He paced the field five times before McElrath overtook him. Masterpool maintained a top-three spot for the next three laps. He finished seventh in that race and 11th in Moto 2 for an eighth overall.

250 Moto 1 Results
250 Moto 2 Results
250 Overall Results
Points Standings

Moto Wins

450MX
[10] Eli Tomac (Hangtown II, Pala I & Pala II, Thunder Valley II, WW Ranch II, RedBud I, Washougal I & II, Budds Creek I & II)
[5] Ken Roczen (Hangtown I, Thunder Valley I, High Point II, Unadilla I & II)
[3] Marvin Musquin (WW Ranch I, The Wick I, RedBud II)
[2] Cooper Webb (Spring Creek I & II)
[1] Blake Baggett (High Point I)
[1] Zach Osborne (The Wick II)

250MX
[7] Adam Cianciarulo (Hangtown II, Pala II, Thunder Valley I, High Point II, The Wick I, Spring Creek II, Unadilla I)
[7] Dylan Ferrandis (WW Ranch II, The Wick II, RedBud I & II, Washougal I & II, Unadilla II)
[3] Justin Cooper (Hangtown I, Pala I, Thunder Valley I)
[2] Hunter Lawrence (High Point I, Spring Creek I)
[2] Shane McElrath (Budds Creek I & II)
[1] Chase Sexton (WW Ranch I)

Next race: Ironman Raceway, Crawfordsville, IN, August 24

Season passes can be purchased at NBC Sports Gold.

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