Fernando Alonso turns focus to final leg of motorsports’ Triple Crown

IMSA.com, Michael Levitt
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Fernando Alonso raced into retirement from Formula One dedicated to winning the final leg of motorsports’ version of the Triple Crown. The Indianapolis 500 is the missing piece on his resume, one he intends to add in May.

But Alonso has been considering his future for quite some time, and his November retirement from F1 has opened his schedule to race in anything he wants. After anchoring Wayne Taylor Racing to a victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Spaniard was coy about his future.

“The aim is to do something unprecedented in motorsport,” Alonso said Sunday after picking up his new Rolex watch.

Not very specific, but a clue that Alonso is open to any and all ideas in this new chapter of his career.

“Right now full focus is on the Indy 500,” he said. “But yeah, I’m thinking I’m trying to do something more, maybe in different disciplines. I need to think, I need to plan, I need to make sure that I’m competitive, to have the right people, the right teams, and the right preparations.

“Whatever adventure is next, I will not do it if I’m not competitive or I don’t have a shot for winning. I need to be very calm and clever with the decisions for the future.”

The plan was put in motion two years ago when the two-time F1 champion persuaded his McLaren team to let him skip the Monaco Grand Prix and instead race the Indianapolis 500. Alonso had twice won in Monte Carlo – perhaps the toughest leg of the Triple Crown – and now he wanted to kiss the bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had never driven an Indy car before and had never raced on an oval, yet he was in contention to win his inaugural Indy 500 until a late engine failure.

His sights next turned to 24 Hours of Le Mans, with a sports car racing debut in last year’s Rolex 24 as the warmup. Alonso announced he would race at Le Mans the morning after he finished his first Rolex, and six months later he won in France to move closer to the Triple Crown.

His attention turns now toward the Indy 500, but with the freedom to pick and choose what he wants to do, Alonso is studying every opportunity. A five-year losing streak in F1 had pushed him to the fringes of that series, and although he remains one of the most popular drivers in the world, some began to wonder if his skills had slipped at the tail of his 17-year F1 career.

What he has done moonlighting in different disciplines has proven his talent has not wavered and that as he prepares to turn 38, Alonso still rates among the best drivers on the planet.

“Whenever you put a guy in a different car on a different track, normally it takes four or five laps for them to get (comfortable),” said Rolex winning team owner Wayne Taylor. “I remember his first split on the first turn was as quick as everybody. I thought, `How are we going to manage this?’ He was just terrific.”

Alonso did the heavy lifting for Taylor at Daytona, a race stopped twice for the first time in history for rain, then called shy of the 24-hour mark because conditions were too treacherous for drivers to be on the track.

Two of Alonso’s three stints in the car were during the rain, in part because F1 had made him the most experienced driver on the Taylor lineup in wet conditions, and because he had the control and steadiness to manage the risks versus reward in a torrential rainstorm. Alonso found the limited visibility and standing water on the track to be the most dangerous conditions of his career, and he had had more than enough when he saw the pace car driver hydroplane and nearly crash when he was following under caution.

But he didn’t turn a single wheel wrong and drove the Cadillac DPi to the lead every time he was on the track to win the Rolex in his second try. He noted after that that his sports car career was exactly a year old and continued to hint at his future.

Although he did a car swap with seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson in November and ran exhibition laps in a stock car, Alonso said at Daytona that NASCAR events are not currently on his radar. He is competing this year in the World Endurance Challenge – he won in his series debut last season in the Six Hours of Spa – and quipped he has so many plans he may need to return to F1 to lessen his load.

There are plenty of opportunities for Alonso all over the world, and his next big announcement could be next year’s Dakar Rally in Paris. Alonso’s win in Daytona made him the third F1 champion to win the Rolex, joining Phil Hill and Mario Andretti. He seemed envious of the drivers before his time who could race all over the world in any sort of formula, and proving that it can still be done might be what Alonso does next.

“I think to win in different series, in different disciplines of motorsport which are quite specific, you need to probably be born with that talent and grow up with that knowledge of that series,” he said. “Like oval racing, like IndyCar and things like that – to come there and try to be competitive or winning is something that I think in motorsport is quite difficult.

“I think in the past it was a little bit more open, motorsport in general. But now every series became very, very professional, and you need to take full dedication to each series, each driving style and things like that. I think hopefully soon I can tell you more of the plans.”

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AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”