INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso could finally breathe a sigh of relief after running 77 laps in Indianapolis 500 practice on Friday.
Then, the two-time Formula One World Champion was asked if he were concerned that his “No Tow” speed of 226.869 miles per hour in the No. 66 McLaren Chevrolet, 30th in that category, had him concerned he might not make the field of 33 for the 103rd Running.
“I am,” Alonso admitted. “It’s the same for everyone. The order and when you draw the run are a factor. If it’s a hot day, that will matter because the track is hotter. Let’s see how it goes tomorrow, but nothing is guaranteed.
“As we saw in 2017, surprises can happen. Let’s hope tomorrow is a good surprise and not a bad surprise.”
A “No Tow” speed is a lap that is either 10-seconds ahead or 10-seconds behind the nearest car on the track, meaning the speed is not increased by the wake or draft of either car. That is a truer indication of the fastest speeds for a single lap around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
An even better indicator are teams that area able to simulate a four-lap run without the benefit of a “Tow.” That is even harder to achieve with so many cars on track during “Fast Friday.”
Saturday’s qualifications begin at 11 a.m. and run through 5:50 p.m. ET. Positions 10-30 will be locked into the starting lineup for the race.
Saturday’s qualifications will also determine the “Fast Nine” that will battle for the Pole on Sunday and the cars in the “Last Row Shootout” on Sunday.
Ed Jones was the fastest driver on the “No Tow” list of 230.106 mph. His team owner and teammate, Ed Carpenter was next at 229.879 mph. Both drivers are in Chevrolets.
Alexander Rossi, the winner of the 100th Indy 500 in 2016, was third at 229.878 mph in a Honda followed by defending Indy 500 winner Will Power’s Chevy at 229.751 mph. Power’s teammate, Simon Pagenaud, rounded out the top five at 229.548 mph.
Conor Daly was the fastest driver of the day with a fast speed of 231.704 mph in the No. 25 Honda for Andretti Autosport. That knocked teammate Marco Andretti off the top of the charts after he put up a speed of 230.851 mph earlier in the day.
Both of those speeds came in traffic and had the benefit of a “tow.”
Alonso, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and two-time Formula One World Champion, was able to have a full day of on-track activity for the first time since practice began on Tuesday. Since that time, Alonso’s Chevrolet was sidelined by alternator issues on Tuesday that sent him back to the Gasoline Alley garage. On Wednesday, he crashed his primary car into the Turn 2 wall just one hour and 34 minutes into the practice session.
The McLaren IndyCar team brought out its backup car and began to prepare that with a hope of returning for a full day of activity on Wednesday. That took much longer than expected, and then the team discovered an issue with the Chevrolet engine and had to make an unexpected engine change that was going to take overnight.
A severe storm washed out the remainder of practice around 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.
After three days, Alonso had about a third of a day of practice combined.
That is why his full day of action Friday was finally a good sign for the beleaguered team.
“It was a positive day for us, and we were able to put the car on track and try different directions on the setup and learn a little bit about the track and the day,” Alonso said. “Obviously, the (turbo) boost was up today, so the speeds were higher, and it was more a qually (qualifying) preparation than race setups.
“We had a lot of new tires from the last couple of days. So, we were able to do a lot of runs, and yeah, hopefully that information will give us tomorrow a little bit of confidence into qualifying.”
McLaren’s Sporting Director is 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion Gil de Ferran, who has had to navigate through a maddening array of obstacles just to get a car ready in time for the Indy 500. Unlike 2007, when McLaren was using an Andretti Autosport car with an Andretti crew and engineering staff, this year, it’s a full McLaren effort.
The inexperience at this form of racing has left the team scrambling this week.
“I think we’ve been going through everything together, the whole team,” De Ferran said. “We have a lot of guys with experience, but I think as a crew we’re very new together. Obviously, we have to step through things very calmly, very slowly in a very determined manner, and today was actually all about that.
“We had a nice clean day, as Fernando said. We had a lot of tires. We were working through changes in the setup and slowly trying to trim out the car towards the latter half of the day. I think in the situation we find ourselves, it’s important to stay calm and continue to improve the car little by little.”
Of all of the days of frustration and waiting, Alonso said the worst was Thursday. That is when he admitted a high degree of anxiety.
“It was, definitely,” Alonso said. “I cannot lie to you. I was changed at 11:00. I was with the right suit, and I was supposed to be out at that time, and it was supposed to be at 1:00, then 2:30, then 4:00, and then it rained. Yeah, it was frustrating.
“Nothing we could do at that point, getting ready for today and having that extra time to check everything and to be ready. It was frustrating, but at the same time, as I said before, we saved a lot of tires that we were able to set up the car today maybe in a more — in a better way. And also, the track kept changing.
“Every day the temperature is completely different. Today, tomorrow, then Tuesday, Wednesday, things like that. Maybe things that you learn on Tuesday, Wednesday, they are not necessarily good for the race week. So, I think in a way, it was not too compromised, the performance of the car or how we felt. The more laps you do, better it is, so hopefully in the next couple of days we can run more.”
This is also a new car and aerodynamic package than the Dallara that the driver from Spain raced with at Indy in 2017.
“I think today didn’t feel too bad compared to 2017 Fast Friday,” Alonso said. “Qualifying, I think the cars are light in general, and the downforce you feel always low, with whatever package you put on the car. I think in traffic, what I heard is that it’s much more challenging now than 2017. As long as it’s the same for everyone, it makes a good show, and if the direction is this one, what INDYCAR is taking for the future and more horsepower or whatever, maybe you’ll see a better show.
“As long as you can follow somehow, which I think is quite important at the end of the day because you can remove the downforce, but you cannot follow closely, you miss the action and you miss the overtaking in the race. So, you need to be able to follow to a certain point to have a good show. Hopefully they take into account that.”
Back in the garage, for De Ferran and his team, the week of practice was turning into “Groundhog Day.”
“I think certainly yesterday, as you said, was a difficult day for everyone,” De Ferran admitted. “We’re a new crew. We respect this place a lot. So, we wanted to make sure that we put the car together the best way possible. Obviously that took longer than we expected, and I guess having been here before, I’m very aware — I was very aware of the importance of being out on the racetrack, both from Fernando’s perspective and for the development of the car.
“Even under those circumstances, I also know it’s very important to keep your cool, you know, so that you don’t make bad decisions going forward. Sometimes you can’t affect certain things, and you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got your game head on when things are ready to go. That’s what we tried to do last night. Obviously as Fernando said, it was frustrating for everyone, but today we’ll go back together.
“Fernando did a great job. The crew did a good job. We’re stepping through it and getting better together.”