In an era when few ‘big’ news stories are genuinely broken, the announcement that Fernando Alonso, and McLaren, would take on the 2017 Indy 500 was a genuine ‘break the internet’ phenomenon.
If the news was unexpected – after all, the race traditionally takes place on the same day as Formula 1’s own blue-riband event, the Monaco Grand Prix, in which Fernando was duly expected to compete – its suddenness was even more of a surprise.
The Spaniard’s announcement was made on April 12 – just six weeks before the race itself, and just a fortnight before he would make his debut at the renowned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his IndyCar induction.
The deal had been brokered secretly by Fernando and McLaren executive director Zak Brown, who had first started to discuss the ‘crazy’ idea at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
It obviously didn’t hurt that Brown had worked extensively in NASCAR, and had an appreciation of the bigger motor sporting picture. He could see the potential – both in terms of PR and in keeping Fernando fully engaged by allowing him to take up this unusual challenge.
“It was a conversation at dinner in Australia where we were sharing our ambitions for the future,” Fernando explained. “Zak was telling me his vision about the team in the near future, expanding McLaren into different series in motorsport, so I think it was a conversation that began casually. It didn’t come from my side or his side. It was just a conversation.”
“It came together very quickly,” Zak explained. “We then had a breakfast with Honda, and he told them of Fernando’s desire to race at Indianapolis and ultimately try to win the triple crown. At that point I could tell he was serious about it, but I didn’t think 2017 was the timeline we were talking about.
“Then we spoke after Australia, and he asked for a dinner Friday in China and I said, ‘Hey, about that Indy thing,’ and he said ‘that’s exactly why I want to do dinner and discuss.’ At that point I knew it was serious, so I got on the phone to the chief exec of IndyCar to see if it was possible.
“And through a lot of skunkwork, because I really didn’t want any rumours getting out there, in case it wouldn’t happen, which I thought would be the case, we were able to put it together. The executive committee blessed it, and Saturday morning Fernando said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and then we ran pretty hard for 72 hours to make it happen…”
With Honda’s help, Zak secured a seat for Fernando in Michael Andretti’s multi-car team, which had won Indy four times, including two of the previous three events, with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, and rookie Alexander Rossi in 2016. Fernando thus knew that he could go to America with a genuine chance of winning the race.
Former 500 winner Gil de Ferran was also engaged as a consultant and advisor, while veteran McLaren engineer Neil Oatley was seconded to the project to liaise with the Andretti guys, and generally represent the team’s interests. And three-time winner Johnny Rutherford returned to the McLaren camp as an ambassador for the project.
Significantly, the Dallara DW12 was painted in McLaren’s traditional papaya orange, as seen on Rutherford’s winning cars in 1974 and ‘76.
There was little doubt that Fernando was enjoying the whole experience.
“I think this is probably the biggest race in the world. You know, to have the opportunity to experience this event is something that I think any racing driver should have the opportunity to feel. “
Come the weekend of May 20-21st Fernando was thrust into qualifying, and the tricky challenge of running four perfect consecutive laps, with the average to count.
Crucially he made it into the “Fast Nine” on the Saturday, in a solid seventh place, ensuring that he was in the hunt for a spot in the first three rows on Sunday. He was the only rookie to make it through to that stage.
After issues early on Sunday a last -minute engine change before qualifying left the Andretti team scrambling to get the car ready in time, but they made it, and Fernando set out for his critical four-lap qualifying run. Now the pressure was really on.
He suffered an “overboost” on his second lap, which forced him to downshift, and his first reaction was that he’d lost so much speed that he might as well abort the run. Instead he kept going.
“It was like hitting the brakes,” he explained. “I went one gear down and started again picking up the speed, and I crossed the line and it was 230mph or something like that. When I thought it was 225 or something, I nearly came to the pit lane because it was, ‘This qualifying run is over with this problem.’ I was still running, still putting the laps together and then I was happily surprised with the total time.”
In fact, Fernando’s four-lap average was 231.300mph. He was the quickest of the Fast Nine runners up to that point, and thus temporarily he was on pole. Subsequently four drivers went quicker, and he was left with a still-impressive fifth place on the grid, immediately behind Andretti team mates Rossi and Sato. Pole went to Scott Dixon at 232.164mph.
“The car was on the limit,” said Fernando. “But I don't know if it was possible to be on pole position, but definitely very close.”
After a series of warm-up laps, with front row men Scott Dixon, Edd Carpenter and Fernando’s team mate Alexander Rossi leading the way, the field was unleashed.
The early laps saw Dixon, Tony Kaanan and Rossi running at the front. Fernando slipped back initially as he got used to the rhythm of the race, but then he began to work his way back into the top six.
After the first round of stops Carpenter led, with Rossi and Fernando behind. The Andretti cars were really flying, and both drivers worked their way past Carpenter and began battling for the lead. Fernando made his way past his team mate on lap 37 to claim the top spot for the first time – a hugely significant moment for the rookie. Rossi re-passed a few laps later, and then Fernando got back in front.
Then on lap 53 came an extraordinary accident that provided a reminder of the dangers of the race. Backmarker Jay Howard hit the wall, and when he came back down the track he left pole man Scott Dixon with nowhere to go. The New Zealander was launched into the air, and his car bounced off the debris fence on the inside, and back onto the track. Remarkably he was unhurt, but the damaged fence meant that the race had to be red flagged, with Fernando the leader at that point.
After a delay for repairs to the fence, the engines were restarted, and after initially lapping behind the pace car the field was released once more. Fernando held the lead, now with two of his team mates – Rossi and Takuma Sato – pushing him hard. The Japanese driver made it into the lead on lap 62, shortly before another yellow period after a two-car crash.
Fernando continued to run in the lead bunch, as the race was interrupted by more caution periods and some drivers gained track position by staying out.
An engine failure for Andretti driver Ryan Hunter-Reay had created some concerns about Honda reliability, but all seemed to well for Fernando – until he slowed and coasted to a smoky halt after completing 179 of the 200 laps. As he climbed out there were sighs of frustration around the world.
When he stopped he was running in seventh and was still in touch with the leaders, with plenty of time left to work his way up the order. He’d led 27 laps in total, between the frequent yellow flags, and he was classified 24th.
“With a trouble-free race, Ryan, Alexander and myself would be half a lap in front of everyone,” he said. “That is the nature of this race. Even with some unlucky moments of yellow flags, we were in the mix. I think I had a little bit in the pocket before the engine blew up.
“I’m obviously disappointed not to finish the race because every race in which you compete you want to be at the chequered flag. “Today it was not possible. It was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here to prove myself, to challenge myself.
“I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car, I didn't know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar. It was nice to have this competitive feeling, leading the Indy 500.”
By way of compensation he was given the prestigious Rookie of the Year awarded, which was was decided by a media vote that to into account the driver's skill, sportsmanship, accessibility and conduct during the month, as well as his finishing position.