There's Alonso, and then there's everyone else. Photo: IndyCar

Alonso mania, plenty of questions dominating Indy practice week

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INDIANAPOLIS – Great as the story of Fernando Alonso racing at this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is – and it is – it is not the only story of note this year.

The contrast between the amount of Alonso coverage and the amount of coverage for the other 32 drivers and cars competing here is stark, and that contrast has been arguably the most interesting part of the week.

As of Friday morning, each of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ established “big three” teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – had held a press conference and with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing all having two drivers in, and then cameos from Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Jay Howard (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Gabby Chaves (Harding Racing), most of the field has been in for interviews.

The line that the drivers are thinking but not saying publicly unless it is in a joking manner is that Alonso is the only driver racing this year. Both Conor Daly (Foyt) and Graham Rahal (RLL) have made that crack in their press conferences. Others in and around the field have expressed private concerns or frustration about Alonso’s presence dominating the story lines – for better or worse.

The story of Alonso racing at Indy now shifts from the shockwaves of announcing he’s doing it to the reality of him being on track, and that’s been what’s interesting to monitor as the week has progressed.

Alonso has not been tentative, that’s for sure. The driver of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry has made two rather eye-popping three-wide passes – first on past winners Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske earlier this week, and then on Castroneves and Karam later. He’s also been unafraid to stick it down the inside at both Turns 1 and 3, and this morning, had a hairy moment exiting Turn 4.

After Thursday’s practice, Alonso said his comfort level in traffic is getting there, as he’s felt confident enough in the team around him to give proper feedback for changes.

“I was (running) behind a car just a couple of seconds in front, but we (tried some laps) without any car in front. We tested a couple of different trims and different setup options,” Alonso said Thursday. “The car felt quite OK from the very beginning of the morning, but then I think we did improve it during the day, so I’m quite happy.

“We worked still a lot on the race situation, keeping other guys out there and running in traffic. I think we found a good balance for traffic. I think tomorrow (Friday) we will concentrate a little bit more alone on qualifying, but the priority is the race.”

Beyond the two-time Formula 1 World Champion, the story lines do not revolve around any one dominant driver or team.

Thus far Marco Andretti, Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Jay Howard have been the four end-of-day practice leaders, and Sebastien Bourdais was fastest this morning before rain has hit the IMS track, and it remains to be seen whether more “Fast Friday” running will occur.

As Alonso goes, it seems so do questions about Honda reliability. Five engine issues for the manufacturer have brought reliability into the framework, but it also balances out the fact the Hondas have undoubted speed this year, and more capable bullets in the gun. Of its 18 entries, you could say at least a dozen of them have a realistic chance at great finishes, whereas with Chevrolet, about eight of its 15 entries seem poised to threaten the leaders.

Questions to ponder from here include these:

  • How can Honda balance reliability with its power? Will they have to risk turning the power levels down in order to keep the reliability there?
  • When might Team Penske show its full hand? The five drivers today were all on the dais and have locked in a laser focus for the race, and all are so dedicated to the singular goal of delivering Roger Penske a 17th Indianapolis 500 champion.
  • How can Ganassi continue to extract the maximum for its Honda kit in its first superspeedway race with it? Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are past winners and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton seem poised to overachieve.
  • Of the six Andrettis, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato look great, Alonso has looked good, and Alexander Rossi has been quietly lurking. Marco Andretti started strong but has seemed to regress. Rookie Jack Harvey has endured a rough week. Where do the Andretti six-pack of drivers shake out?
  • Is Carpenter poised to emerge ahead in the Chevrolet camp?
  • Does RLL have a surprise up its sleeve with Rahal and Oriol Servia, Servia in particular as he is working with last year’s race-winning engineer in Tom German? It’s the same story for SPM, where James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin have had interesting weeks and Howard has probably been the week’s biggest surprise.
  • How much will it rain the next few days, and how will it affect qualifying?

These stories, and more, will be set to play out over the next 48 to 72 hours.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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