de Ferran, Rutherford impressed by Alonso’s Indy 500 effort

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Unsurprisingly, the dominant storyline of the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by Penngrade Motor Oil is the presence of Fernando Alonso. “Alonso Mania” has taken over Indianapolis Motor Speedway in every sense imaginable, with the other 32 competitors even fielding questions about how they believe he’ll do and what advice they would offer him.

And despite his lack of experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and at ovals in general (he had never been on an oval prior to his May 3 test at the Speedway), Alonso has acclimated himself quickly. His speeds have steadily gotten quicker all week and he made it into the Fast Nine Shootout after posting the seventh fastest average speed during Saturday qualifying.

Two former “500” winners chimed in on “Alonso Mania” this weekend, both of whom are involved in the Alonso/McLaren venture. In separate press conferences with the media, Gil de Ferran (2003 Indy 500 winner) and Johnny Rutherford (three-time Indy 500 winner; 1974, 1976, and 1980) expressed positive thoughts about Alonso’s time so far.

“To be honest, I think Fernando has slotted very well into the Andretti camp and the whole Andretti team culture,” said de Ferran, who has been coaching Alonso all week. “(He) really fit right in. There’s been a lot of exchange between all the drivers. Everything has been very positive.”

De Ferran, who first raced at Indianapolis in 1995, even detailed his own experience as a rookie, and how uncomfortable he was, which highlights how strong Alonso has been on debut.

“I came here in ’95 for the first time. I found it quite difficult,” de Ferran revealed. “The cars were very powerful back then, didn’t have a lot of downforce. It was even hard to go flat at the time. Even though we had a lot of practice, believe me, I needed all the practice.”

Fernando Alonso during Fast Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Johnny Rutherford, who joined the McLaren effort as an ambassador earlier this month and has won two Indy 500s under the McLaren banner, offered his thoughts on Saturday during a press conference of his own, and he did not seem surprised that Alonso has acclimated himself quickly to both track and car.

“He is a professional race driver, and he’s won the world title twice, and it shows,” Rutherford said of Alonso’s progression. “He had done very good in his tests. He just (rifled) through his driver’s test; at the end of the day he ran 220 mph or 222, I think.”

“Lone Star JR” added that the quality of Andretti Autosport and its Honda package has been instrumental in Alonso’s development. “It says a lot for the cars. They’re pretty stable. I look for him to do very well,” he asserted.

(Original Caption) Johnny Rutherford waves after he won the 58th Indianapolis 500 Race, 5/26. Rutherford’s wife, Betty, is left.

As of writing, Rutherford is likely one of the few people who hasn’t yet had a chance to speak with Alonso. But, when that time comes, he certainly will have some advice to give.

“It’s little things that he needs to think about,” he said regarding potential advice. “He’s a race driver, a good race driver. He just needs to think about traffic and some things that can happen. This is a long race: 500 miles, right at three hours. You’ve got to really pace yourself and be at the right place at the right time at the end. And that all comes with pit stops.”

Rutherford added, “I tell the rookies: If you can run a good steady race all day and have good pit stops without any major problems happening, you can finish in the top five here pretty easily. You know, just be there, because that’s the way it unfolds if you look at the records.”

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds