Sebastien Bourdais, right, has been a big influence to Pietro Fittipaldi, left, both before and after the latter's crash two weeks ago in Belgium. Photo: Getty Images.

As he recovers from injuries, Pietro Fittipaldi soaks in welcoming Indy atmosphere

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The only thing standing – no pun intended – between Pietro Fittipaldi and climbing into an Indy car Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a pair of crutches and a cast. But his heart and emotion was more than ready to go.

Fittipaldi planned on being at IMS this week to take part in practice for what he hoped would be his first appearance in the May 27th Indianapolis 500.

But Pietro will be watching from the sidelines this year, cheering for teammate Zachary Claman Demelo, who will be driving the No. 19 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing.

Fittipaldi, who hoped to follow in the footsteps of grandfather and two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, suffered a fractured left leg and broken right ankle while qualifying for a sports car race on May 4 at Belgium’s famed Spa road course.

The 21-year-old Brazilian (he turns 25 on June 23) is expected to be sidelined until at least early July, but still holds out hopes he’ll have a few more IndyCar starts later on this season.

To date, he’s only had one career IndyCar start: earlier this year at Phoenix, where he qualified 10th but completed just 40 laps, knocked out by a crash that resulted in a 23rd-place finish.

Pietro spoke with the media Thursday at IMS about his crash, his recovery and his future during an interview session. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:

HOW IS HE FEELING: “I’m a lot better. I got here on Friday. I’ve been working with all the IndyCar doctors. Dr. (Terry) Trammell has been helping me a lot. It’s good to be in the racing environment because it keeps me active. They got me training every single day doing physical therapy and everything. Also to be close to the team, a lot of drivers came by the motorhome to come and talk to me, see how everything’s going. That’s really cool.”

ON BEING AT INDIANAPOLIS: “It’s good to be in this environment. Obviously I would like to be in different circumstances. I’d like to be racing. But it is what it is. Working hard to get back racing soon.”

ON LIVING AT IMS IN HIS MOTORHOME, EVEN THOUGH HE’S SIDELINED DUE TO HIS INJURIES: “I couldn’t really get much closer than that. We decided with all the doctors to stay at the track, at the motorhome, because Dr. Trammell is at the medical center here every day, with all the nurses there. Denise also works with IndyCar. They’ve been helping me out a lot. I’ve been training at Pit Fit doing the physical therapy here, and at the same time trying to stay up to speed with the team. The team gave me a radio. When I’m at the motorhome not doing anything, I’m just listening, trying to stay along with everything.”

MORE SPECIFICS ABOUT HIS PHYSICAL CONDITION: “My upper body feels normal, feels very strong. That’s what we’re trying to keep so when I get back in the racecar I’m really fit on the upper body. They’re already working on the lower body, as well, doing a lot of quad and hamstring stuff.

“I’m already weight bearing on the left leg, which is quite early, but the doctor has been pushing me quite hard. We’re already doing that here. Then getting the mobility back on the right ankle is going to be important, which we already are. The plan is to be back at Mid-Ohio.

“Obviously Indianapolis, I would have loved to be racing at the 500, at the Indy Grand Prix. We ran well at the test here at the GP (just days before his crash at Spa). I was really looking forward to it. Obviously, the team had a very good car. I knew before coming here we were going to have a good weekend. Unfortunately the accident happened. Now it’s fully focused on getting back recovered as soon as possible and get back to racing.”

HOW IS HE FEELING EMOTIONALLY? “Of course I’d love to be racing. Racing is like this. Things happen that sometimes are out of your control. We had an electrical issue. I lost power steering, went straight into the wall in qualifying. We all know the risks and dangers in auto racing.

“It’s like this. Now it’s my other race. Now I’m focused on getting back as fast as possible, you know, getting back to be able to do a good job.

“I’m disappointed, I’m hurt that I’m not being able to race here in the 500. But it is what it is. It’s toughen up and get back as soon as possible. … Obviously I’m going to be focused on my IndyCar schedule. Doing those last five races are going to be very important. But, you know, I’m a racer. I always want to race as many things as possible, be competitive. My focus right now is to get back as soon as possible. Like the plan is already in a week to get back in a go-kart. That’s what we want to do, then get back in Mid-Ohio. That’s going to be my first race.

“… As racers, if you love the sport, as soon as you know you have an injury, first thing you ask the doctors, When can I be back racing? You don’t even know what you have, When can I be back in the racecar? That’s the mentality we have most of the time.”

HAVE HE LEARNED ANYTHING FROM HOW DALE COYNE RACING TEAMMATE SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS CAME BACK SO QUICK FROM HIS CRASH HERE AT INDIANAPOLIS LAST YEAR? “Yeah, of course. Sebastien came to my motorhome yesterday. I was speaking to him for an hour or so. He was telling me all about his recovery, his rehab, how he got back in around eight to ten weeks, something like that. It’s obviously very inspiring.

“Even with my cousin, Christian Fittipaldi, when he got injured, he came back, he had one of his best races. He had the same injury that I had on my left leg. I’m getting a lot of input from a lot of friends and family, which is always good. It’s putting me on the right path to getting back.”

HOW MUCH HAS HE SPOKEN TO GRANDFATHER EMERSON? “Quite a lot. He was actually supposed to come visit me today, but he’s going to be coming next week. He has been following me throughout the whole process, when I got injured, when I had the surgery there in Belgium, then I got transferred here to Indianapolis last Friday.

“Another person that’s been helping me a lot is my uncle, Max Papis. He was actually in Belgium. He was going to arrive for my qualifying. I actually met him at the hospital. He helped me to connect me with all the IndyCar doctors here who have been doing a fantastic job. I really can’t thank them enough. The program they put together for me it’s top of the line. I’m really happy to be here.

“Yeah, just my whole family, my mom who has been with me, I feel bad for her because she’s been doing most of the work, getting me in and out of the wheelchair, doing everything for me. So thank you.

“I just want to take this opportunity also to thank all the fans and all my friends and family who have been sending me messages through social media, through my phone, just thank you so much. We’ll be back very soon.”

HE ONLY COMPETED IN ONE INDYCAR RACE. HOW HAS THE COMMUNITY RESPONDED TO HIM, PARTICULARLY IN LIGHT OF HIS INJURY: “It’s amazing. The environment, it’s great. I think from all the drivers, it’s a much closer community than what we’re used to in Europe. You’re very friendly. Obviously when you’re racing on track, it’s everyone for themselves. When you’re out, especially how it is at the motorhomes, I can’t experience that now, but usually you would have barbecues and stuff outside with other drivers after practice day, after a race day.

“Then obviously working with the team, since my first test at Sebring with the Dale Coyne team, the environment’s been great, with my engineer, Michael Cannon, and even from the other side, Craig Hansen, as well. They’re two very experienced engineers that I’ve been able to feed off and learn.

“I was really confident that this year we were going to be able to show some really good results. It was unfortunate what happened, but we’ll be back.”

*******************************

Team owner Dale Coyne also took part in the media session and answered a few questions as well:

WHEN DO YOU HOPE TO SEE PIETRO BACK IN A RACE CAR? “Initially you think a broken bone, six to eight weeks. The right ankle is probably going to be a little bit longer for him than his left leg. Putting weight on his left leg already. Realistically, his original schedule was to do the (INDYCAR) GP, this race, Texas, then not come back till Mid-Ohio. I think the plan is we’ve moved some races around with Zach (Demelo), so he’ll do this race, probably Texas. But that frees the whole rest of the season up so (Fittipaldi) can come back at Mid-Ohio and finish up the season.”

HOW GOOD IS IT TO SEE PIETRO AT IMS? “He’s a racer. This is the environment he lives in. These are the people that support him. You always learn. You’ve got to be here to learn. Every day there’s something to learn, whether he’s in the pits or just a radio away, people talking to him at night or in the morning. He’s going to learn every day. It’s great to have him here.”

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Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes many legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcend into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on Dec. 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”


With so many obstacles in the way of Alonso competing for any other team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best (and essentially his only) option come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” Brown said in a response to a question from NBCSports.com in a Tuesday teleconference. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso, and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after (the Dakar Rally) because he wanted to be very focused on that event. had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda in 2017. He got up to speed quickly, qualifying fifth and leading 27 laps before his Honda failed with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso’s worst days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux pas was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over because of disparaging and critical comments about its engine by Alonso and the team.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what then was known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. To make the deal work, the team had to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

When the Arrow McLaren SP deal was announced on Aug. 9, 2019, Alonso still was attempting to negotiate an Indy 500 deal with Andretti Autosport, and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed, and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no and held firm against doing business with Alonso for the same reasons as with McLaren.

Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver.”


Though it appeared this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized they had been wooing Alonso for several months.

The addition of Hampson, who oversaw a car Bourdais qualified for the Fast Nine in the past two Indy 500s, and a solid test at COTA helped make the case.

“These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump,” Brown said. “There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Said Schmidt: “It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November. We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal.”

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports — the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Having conquered Monaco and Le Mans, Indy remains the final event to master for the Spaniard.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. There are four corners but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

The key to completing the deal was Michael Andretti allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to follow Alonso as his Indy 500 sponsor to Arrow McLaren SP after the deal with Andretti Autosport fell through.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown said, referring to the Virgin Australia Supercars team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them.”

Alonso is just as excited to return at Indy despite last year’s disappointment, gleefully describing the Brickyard’s appeal in his interview with Diffey.

“Definitely. once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500