Fernando Alonso impressed everyone by qualifying fifth for the 2017 Indianapolis 500. The next step was the race itself, which would be a whole new adventure for him...
Qualifying at Indianapolis could hardly have gone better for Fernando, and fifth place was undoubtedly an impressive performance for a rookie. He didn’t have much time to ponder what he’d achieved, as on the following Monday there was another practice session, with the focus now on the race rather than preparing for the all-important solo qualifying run and out and out speed.
Race of Two Worlds
Meanwhile, over in Europe, McLaren Formula 1's Monaco GP weekend kicked off on Thursday with the opening practice sessions for the other half of what McLaren called the ‘Race of Two Worlds,’ a nod to the events at Monza in the 1950s that saw Indy 500 contenders taking on the Europeans on the Monza banking.
Fernando was busy with media work at Indianapolis, but he kept a close eye on proceedings as Jenson Button returned to drive ‘his’ car. Jenson himself had not sampled the MCL32 on track, so he spent Thursday dialling himself in, getting used to both the high-downforce 2017-spec car and Pirelli’s latest tyres. He finished the day in a respectable 12th, just behind team mate Stoffel Vandoorne.
“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning,” said Button. “I had a little giggle to myself as I headed into Mirabeau. It’s a lovely experience for me to drive these cars. Have I missed it? I haven’t missed it, but when you jump in the car you definitely enjoy the moments you have.
“I really enjoyed practice, the long runs, the short runs, but FP2 was a bit of a struggle to find my feet with my car. But I’m definitely getting there, and I’m confident I can improve for Saturday.”
Jenson had a day off on Friday, while at Indy Fernando enjoyed a final chance to prepare the race with the last practice session, traditionally known as Carb Day.
“It was a lot of action today in a one-hour session,” he reported. “You have a lot of things happening. Everything is compressed on those 60 minutes. So we had some yellow flags; we had some laps to test different things on the car. And just even, you know, very normal things that for everyone else will be straightforward.
“For me, I don't know where, you know, if we change something on the car, where to find it, you know, on the steering wheel and things like that. So simple things that I am still running behind a little bit, but today I think we put all the ticks in all the boxes and extremely happy.”
On Saturday, Fernando had some time off, while Jenson was back in action in Monaco. He was again 12th in FP3, but qualifying proved to be even better as he took 11th in Q1 and then 10th in Q2, which earned him a place in Q3. He finished that session in ninth – but he knew that he would be going to the back of the grid thanks to a change of MGU-H and turbo.
Come Sunday and Jenson would actually start from the pit-lane after he dropped out of parc ferme and changed some other parts. Just before the start, he and the car’s regular driver engaged in some friendly trans-Atlantic radio banter, as Fernando was patched through from the USA and their conversation broadcast on the world feed.
Unfortunately Jenson’s afternoon would end in a frustrating collision with Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber, just before the tunnel.
Attention then turned to Indianapolis. In the Monaco paddock, a packed McLaren Brand Centre took on an American theme with burgers and hot dogs served as team members and dozens of F1 insiders gathered to watch the race on the big TV screens. There was a real buzz in the air.
The Indy 500 has its own traditions and procedures, and for Fernando everything was a new experience. Finally after the endless preliminaries the 33 drivers were strapped into their cars, and the famous “Start your engines” command was given. 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.
The danger of Indy
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.
“One of the things we did fall down on was the start and restarts,” says Neil Oatley, McLaren’s man in the Andretti camp. “He kept losing places, but he seemed to be able to easily pick his way back to the front. But then from around lap 110, that became more difficult. Maybe he lost an edge, as he seemed to be able to catch people up, and then struggled to get past them. Sadly it didn’t last the final 20 laps…”
An engine failure for Andretti driver Ryan Hunter-Reay had created some concerns about Honda reliability, but all seemed 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 in grandstands, the Brand Centre in the Monaco paddock, and 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.”
A win for Andretti
Fernando was watching on the sidelines as Sato crossed the line after 200 dramatic laps to score a third win in four years for the Andretti Autosport team, fending off a late challenge from Helio Castroneves.
“I'm obviously disappointed not to finish the race because every race in which you compete, you want to be at the chequered flag,” said Fernando. “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 could 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 took into account the driver's skill, sportsmanship, accessibility and conduct during the month, as well as his finishing position.
“It was a great experience, obviously very new for me, many things there,” he noted on his next F1 appearance in Montreal, after having a fortnight to process the experience. “Very intense, because I had to learn many things from zero, so it was definitely a good way to stop this year in F1 for a couple of weeks, and start from zero in something, and learn from the beginning.
“That was the first thing that I wanted to try. Try to be competitive in a completely new car, new series. I am always searching for this kind of motivation. Qualifying already started to be an amazing experience – four laps on the limit and try to not scrub the speed in any place.
“And obviously the race strategically is very different compared to F1, a very long race as well. It was just a new thing for me, but I felt competitive, I felt good in qualifying, I was leading the biggest race in the world for a while, so really really happy.”
Alonso certainly made a lot of friends and won a lot of fans in the USA, and so too did McLaren. There were only positives for the team and its sponsors, as Zak Brown reflects.
Everyone at McLaren is a racer
“It was great for employee morale,” he says. “Everyone at McLaren is a racer, so to be going for a win, that was great, that was something we haven’t experienced in a while.
“Our automotive business got behind it. North America is one of our biggest markets, so to have the McLaren brand out there in a big way was good. McLaren Applied Technologies' motorsport division supplies IndyCar, so they further built their relationship. Our partners got tons of exposure, and they’ve been lacking in exposure in F1.”
Indeed the numbers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were extraordinary, with a reach of 46.7m from McLaren’s social media channels, and 4.5m online video views. There were significant increases in visits to the team’s website and Facebook page from North America. The original announcement of the Indy 500 programme was the third most read story on the team website since the start of 2016.
So if Brown could start the project all over again, would he take a different approach?
“I wouldn’t have done anything differently. There were so many pieces, and if any piece didn’t come together, it would have fallen apart. It was very difficult, because it was a very complex deal over a very short period of time, that took total co-operation.
“But all the pieces fell into place. There were two things that could have embarrassed me – he could have got hurt, and if for some miraculous reason we’d had an unbelievable Monaco.
“It changed the media narrative, temporarily! It wasn’t more bad news, it was, ‘Look at this great news.’ It put Fernando in a great place. I think it was good for F1, because it meant we brought Jenson back to Monaco, so that was an incremental story. It ticked so many boxes, and it was all good. It almost went perfectly.”
So how does Fernando himself view the Indy 500 experience, one year on?
“I grew up here in Europe,” he said in Monaco this week. “And I grew up in an F1 environment, I dreamed about F1 when I was a go kart driver, I joined F1 when I was 19, and I was battling with Michael Schumacher, and I had the life that I dreamed.
“But sometimes to go out of this world and experience those kinds of big races is quite beneficial. As I said, looking back 12 months ago I was enjoying a lot that experience, and it was good…”