Fernando Alonso completes his Rookie Orientation Program at Indy (VIDEO)

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Fernando Alonso has completed his Rookie Orientation Program for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, driving the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his first running. This means he is cleared to participate in the race itself.

It took just 50 laps for Alonso to work through ROP, at a best speed of 219.654 mph (40.9735 seconds) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

The phases of ROP are 10 laps in the 205-210 mph range, then 15 in the 210-215 mph range, then 15 north of 215-plus.

Alonso expressed his first comments to Robin Miller during the IMS/NBC Sports App live stream, hosted by Kevin Lee, Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford with Miller on pit lane.

“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 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,” Alonso told Miller.

“The laps, with 30 laps, 40 laps in the book, you’re able to fine tune the lines, the upshift and downshifts. At the moment everything looks good. Now we start the real thing.

“I think the feeling of the simulator is quite realistic. The real car is such a unique feeling. It’s not the same in the simulator as the real thing! The real thing, Marco ran it this morning. Running alone is quite OK, we will see in the next weeks.

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

Team principal Michael Andretti, who will call Alonso’s race, said Alonso has done well and acclimated to the initial level of downforce.

“It was great. He did perfect. Now we can play a little bit after he looks at data, so he can see what’s on the data compared to how he’s feeling,” Andretti told Miller.

Alonso is set to run again after a quick break but it depends on whether weather will hit the track. Here is the official plan per INDYCAR communications head Curt Cavin:

Interestingly, the 51 laps he completed in this morning session, following Marco Andretti’s shakedown, are more than he has in any Grand Prix this year except for Bahrain (54 laps). At Australia (50 laps), China (33) and Russia (did not start), Alonso did not make as many laps.

Yes, it’s an oval compared to a road course and laps are quicker, but this was by all means a successful first run in the car.

More to follow…

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.