Distinct F1, Indy differences stand out as Alonso returns to Indy

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Fernando Alonso will be a rookie in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil but he is not, in fact, a rookie to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In truth, he had six somewhat forgettable starts there when the United States Grand Prix was held on the previous configuration of the IMS road course.

And the gap between what Alonso went through then as a 20-something versus today, a 35-year-old getting ready to tackle the biggest race on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, could not be more different.

Alonso failed to finish his first three starts at Indy with Minardi in 2001 and Renault in 2003 and 2004, the latter year having had a memorable crash on the start/finish straight.

He didn’t even get a chance to start what would have been his best chance to win in 2005, owing to the Michelin tire fiasco, as all-Michelin shod cars withdrew after the formation lap.

It was only in 2006 when he finally finished his first U.S. Grand Prix in fifth with Renault and then finished second to then-teammate Lewis Hamilton in 2007 in a Mercedes-powered McLaren, in the last Formula 1 race held at Indianapolis, that Alonso even got on the board at Indy.

INDIANAPOLIS – JUNE 17: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Mercedes races during the F1 Grand Prix of USA at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 17, 2007 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

But he did have memories of the Indianapolis 500 first, and cool as it was to have raced there in September or June in F1, he was never sure whether he’d have the opportunity to race there in May.

“I was concentrating in go karts, not even dreaming about Formula 1 as a child. It all seemed too difficult to reach,” Alonso admitted during the post-practice press conference. “You’re working to grow on the single seaters, and then into Formula 3000. Eventually you arrive to Formula 1 and you are an F1 driver.

“My first Indy memory would be Jacques Villeneuve winning (in 1995) then coming to F1 (a year later in 1996), and then Juan Pablo (Montoya) winning in 2000. Those were the first memories I had from this place.

30 Sep 2001: Minardi driver Fernando Alonso of Spain in action during the US Formula One Grand Prix held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indiana. Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason /Allsport

“When we came here in Formula 1 it was something special. We were racing in the States, which was amazing for Formula 1, and it was the biggest place in the world. I remember the first year I raced here, I took pictures of the entrance. I was taking pictures. I hoped one day to race here in May.”

Alonso took his first step toward that race in May today in his first test session aboard the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry, completing more than 100 laps and finishing his Rookie Orientation Program.

Because Formula 1 doesn’t have anything close to an oval on its calendar, it’s hard to think of an F1 corner that matches any of the four left-handers that make up IMS’ 2.5 miles. Still, Alonso gave his best stab at it when asked.

“Maybe 130R from Suzuka? You’re probably at 320 or 330 kph… I have no idea in mph,” Alonso said. “It feels different. On Formula 1, the feeling of just the steering wheel helps it feel a little bit easier. The level of downforce, sophistication, is that there is a little bit more grip and predictable car.

“But here, it is more raw. It’s more racing. It’s definitely faster and different. We all started in karts or smaller categories. We missed that kind of feeling, where every single millimeter or tenth of second matters. Here, it’s more driver input in different phases of the corner.”

Alonso also noted how the start-up process in IndyCar is vastly different from F1, and significantly quicker.

“Here, they ask if you’re ready, you say yes, switch the car on and you go. In Formula 1, it takes 6 minutes to fire up the car!” Alonso laughed.

“It’s check, re-check. (It’s) so much technology, electronics, hybrid system that needs to be linked with the combustion engine, the brake by wire. Every run gets slowed down by possibilities (that could go wrong) on the car. Here, it is more fun because you switch on the engine, and you race.”

The hardest part of Alonso’s F1-Indy odyssey from a travel and logistics perspective, meanwhile, appears behind him.

Since his announcement on April 12 that he’d be racing in Indianapolis, he has had this travel schedule of locations: Bahrain, Birmingham, Ala., Indianapolis, Sochi, Russia and Indianapolis again, today.

He’ll be back home to his native Spain in the coming days for preparation ahead of his home race, the Spanish Grand Prix (Sunday, May 14, 8 a.m. ET, NBCSN). Immediately after that, he plans to be back in Indianapolis by May 15, where he’ll set up shop for the remainder of the month and miss the Monaco Grand Prix.

For Alonso, this next month comes after a surreal two-month journey of travel since preseason testing for the Formula 1 season began in his native Spain in early March.

“Actually I started in the week before Australia, and I wasn’t coming back to home until after tomorrow when I’m there,” he said.

“So from the first week in March, I’ve been moving. The next four days I will train a bit and relax a little bit. See the family in Spain, be at the Spanish Grand Prix. 

“There’s been a lot of flights, time zone differences, but I’m pretty much OK at the moment.”

Other than the whole, getting used to turning left only, thing.

“Yes it felt new to me! It felt strange, anti-clockwise at those speeds,” Alonso said. “But it’s been a very helpful day in getting to learn all the techniques on driving. I’m happy with this first step.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.