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.