Long Read: Thoughts on Fernando Alonso entering the Indianapolis 500

Wow.

That’s all I could think when I saw the news. Wow.

This never happens any more! It is a big enough story when a former Formula 1 driver contests the Indianapolis 500 or IndyCar Series. It is a huge story when an active F1 driver competes in another series in the same year. It is incredible that two-time champion Fernando Alonso, widely regarded as one of the best drivers in the world, let alone on the F1 grid, a man many say is ‘owed’ three more championship titles, would choose to do this while still racing in F1.

Crossovers

F1 drivers are supposed to be ‘out of touch corporate machines’ with bland personalities. They aren’t ‘supposed’ to race in anything else, the thinking goes, there are untouchable.

This is why I love crossovers. Through the 1990s and 2000s it was rare to see. It was a big deal when Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon did their ‘Tradin Paint’ car swap and that was a sponsor promotion. Same for Lewis Hamilton and Tony Stewart.

In the 2010s the trend changed. Kimi Raikkönen tried NASCAR and Rally during a F1 sabbatical, Robert Kubica famously injured himself in a lesser-ranked rally, Kurt Busch raced the Indy 500, Jeff Gordon the Daytona 24 Hours, Nico Hulkenberg won the 24 Hours of Le Mans as an active F1 driver. Now it is common for half the Formula E field to also compete in World Endurance. It seems the restrictions of the last 20 years are melting away.

Triple Crown

Fernando Alonso is a racer. He just wants to win. He also has an appreciation for the sport. He waved the French tricolore to start the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I thought he might take the start the following year with Porsche. I never thought he’d try Indy.

It is Juan Pablo Montoya I thought would be the next to attempt the Triple Crown, of Monaco GP, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24. He has already won Indy and Monaco, the only still-active driver to have won two legs of the three. He has won the 24 Hours of Daytona three times and the buzz ramped up when he tested a Porsche LMP1 in 2015. Surely he would be the next to attempt it? Perhaps the chase of Alonso will spur him on!

The Triple Crown is an unofficial honour, there are no prizes. It is a mark of talent to take on three specialist disciplines and win. Few even attempt it. The events have been run for decades (Indy 1911, Le Mans 1923, Monaco 1929) yet only Graham Hill has won the Triple Crown. Only seven drivers, including Hill, have even won two of the three – Montoya was the first since the 1970s to get that far.

Some definitions replace Monaco with the World Drivers’ / F1 Championship, but I don’t buy that, you can’t mix events with championships in that way, to my mind.

Boat Anchor

There is context of course. The F1 Honda engine is visibly slower than the competition. At first it seems fine but you only need to watch a long straight to see the hybrid deployment runs out 300 metres before the Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. It is like Fernando threw an anchor over the side.

The car doesn’t seem bad, in the twisty bits at Bahrain Alonso was more than able to hold his own against the Toro Rosso and the Renault yet two laps later they were ahead again.

The irony is at Monaco top end power is less relevant. No long straights here. A well-driven lower-powered car is able to hang on at this track. Ask Enrique Bernoldi and David Coulthard. If they can nurse the powertrain home, Monaco may present McLaren-Honda with their best opportunity for points so far this season.

Yet there is nothing to lose. Alonso is not throwing away a potential win. He might at best be throwing away points for 7th place. Fernando Alonso is a championship contender, he does not care about being 7th or 13th.

More likely, he is throwing away the opportunity to drive near the back for half the race before something breaks.

Going to Indy will be much more fun.

Super-Sub

From the team side, they DO care about being 7th or 13th because they badly need those points. The difference in Constructors’ Championship positions is worth millions of dollars. Thankfully they have Jenson Button, a hell of a super-sub. The sticking point – he will not drive before FP1 other than in the simulator. His first real world experience of wide-track 2017 F1 cars will be in free practice in Monaco. Yikes. Don’t be too harsh on him if he hits the wall in practice. Despite how cool the ’17 machines are, I don’t think JB wanted to race this particular car. I can’t say I blame him.

And obviously they have another entry, not that we’ve seen a lot of it. Poor Stoffel Vandoorne. Highly talented, McLaren was meant to be his big break. It could ruin his career. At the time of writing, after Bahrain but before Russia, he’d recorded one finish (2 laps down), one Did Not Finish (after 17 laps), and one Did Not Start. He is owed better.

How Does This Benefit IndyCar?

It cements IndyCar as being back on the map, or more exactly, the Indy 500.

The sport of IndyCar racing was dying a decade ago. ChampCar, itself a rescue of the old CART, folded after the 2007 season. The rival IRL, of which the Indy 500 was part, was propped up by handouts. In 2008 teams and drivers merged into the IRL, rebranded later to what we now call the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The echoes of the poisonous CART/IRL war lingered for years after. It has only been in last 3 or 4 years we’ve seen some real positivity. The poison is now gone. Everyone is looking forward. Growth, momentum, new talent, retained talent, increased viewership, events with date equity and an end to the line of badly-executed street races. The series itself really is on an upswing.

As for the Indy 500, in the early 2000s it was a faded star. Internationally it was nothing. Domestically it was struggling. That’s now changed. The merger and growth in IndyCar has prompted a resurgence in the great race. The 100th Edition last year saw full stands and a buzz like I’ve never seen, the sort of buzz the old timers always said the race used to have. It is now a landmark event, like it always was.

Landmark events draw big name drivers. And now a globally-recognised superstar! This is the biggest news on an international level, for IndyCar, since Nigel Mansell. A big NASCAR star would bring attention in the US and the US alone. A global star like Alonso may have less effect within the US, but it’ll be huge outside it. This is what the Indy 500 needs now.

Juan Pablo Montoya helped get them there. His rejoining the series helped boost the profile massively. To some extent Rubens Barrichello and Takuma Sato also played their roles, but only a little. Getting Fernando Alonso, Formula 1 World Champion and ex-Ferrari F1 driver, now that’s a big one.

IndyCar fans are divided. Some love the attention. Others say the series should worry instead about promoting the other races and promoting internal talent from the ladder series, such as Stefan Wilson, who’s seat Alonso has taken. I agree, they should do these things. But that doesn’t mean they can’t continue to push the profile of the biggest race ever forward. There’s been enough inward consolidation, now is the time to look outward.

North American fans can be fooled into thinking the 500 is as big outside the US as it is inside. This is not true. Most of the world doesn’t give two shits about the Indy 500 any more, hasn’t for a long time. This is gradually changing again. It needed a shock to push it along. It got one.

This isn’t aimed at the domestic audience. This will put this race back where it once was, as one of the pillars of world motor sport, a place where drivers from around the world aspire to race.

And in doing so it might even raise the level of the whole series.

The Right People

The Andretti Curse. Mario raced at Indy for eons and only won once. Michael raced several times, won championships, and is regarded as one of the best to have raced at the venue, but he never won it. And Marco, well his debut was fantastic but he can’t seem to get there either – even though Indy is his forté.

Andretti Autosport therefore is built around winning this damned race. They have four cars for the full season and routinely enter a 5th or 6th at Indy. This is a huge commitment but they’ve been doing it for over a decade either in current name or as Andretti-Green. And it works.

And they are a true team, evolved from the buddy club of Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan who were the teams’ quartet in the mid-2000s. A true collegiate atmosphere where all data is shared, all help one another.

Herta went on to form his own team, a giant-killing one-car entry, which has since merged with Andretti Autosport and together last year it was his car which won the Indy 500. Herta may not have the most famous name, but you never counted him out as a driver, nor owner.

In 2016 all Andretti/Herta cars were fast and ran up front. Only pit fumbles sent some of them a couple of laps down, but those ran race-leading pace afterwards. And at the end the race came down to two team cars running different strategies:  Rossi on a fuel save, Munoz going full power trying to catch him.

AA has won the 500 on four occasions, including two with the current specification of car:  2005, 2007, 2014, 2016. As a car owner, Michael Andretti smashed The Curse to pieces.

NASCAR star Kurt Busch raced for Andretti in 2014 and finished 6th. They may race the same ovals but the difference between NASCAR and IndyCar is huge. This will be a tremendous confidence boost to Alonso, to Zak Brown, and to the Andretti Autosport team. These are the right people.

Alonso’s team-mates will be de facto team leader, 2012 series champion & 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. Marco Andretti, whose head has been down for a few years but is a talented driver rebooting his career this season. Former F1 driver Takuma Sato is new to the team, fiendishly fast at the 500 and nearly finished 2nd had he not crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead on the last lap. Alexander Rossi had enough of standing at the back of F1 garages and went and won the Indy 500 last year. And rookie Jack Harvey drives the Michael Shank Racing car, after finishing 2nd in Indy Lights points for two consecutive years. This is a high calibre squad.

Chances?
Honestly Alonso does have a great chance to win. Realistically I would expect a top ten. Equally I wouldn’t be surprised to see him a lap down or in the wall. For Alonso, a top ten on debut in a new discipline would be a great result, much better than the equivalent placing in Monaco.

The Challenge

200 laps of a 2.5 mile oval at speeds of 240mph on the straights and 200+ through the four turns, with 32 other drivers.

The race can be between 2hrs30mins and 3 hours long. The sun and the crosswinds change the track. The draft (slipstream) is strong in traffic and you need to be able to read it well, an art honed by practice.

And qualifying means running negative rear wing, making the car skittish and nervy and very, very fast. Ranked by a four-lap average based on speed, if there are enough entries you might not even make the race.

Indianapolis is not a high-banked oval such as Daytona. It doesn’t offer multiple lines. The four corners really are four distinct unique corners. You can’t cruise around turning left. You have to drive this course.

Turn 1 follows a blast through the canyon between grandstands and pitlane, you can only see a concrete wall ahead of you, have to turn in before you see the exit and trust the track will be there. Requires commitment.

Turn 2 should be easy as it opens out on to the back straight, but coming off the banking the crosswinds easily send the tail into a spin. Careful, steady hands, no heroics here.

Turn 3 is the opposite of 2, a fast run into a gradually tightening turn.

Turn 4 tightens some more, the sheer speeds dictating a single line. Get off ‘the groove’, the darker rubbered-in track, and you’ll find yourself heading to the outside wall.

This place is fearsome. It must be shown respect at all times.

Don’t be too harsh on him if he hits the wall in practice.

Greatest Spectacle In Racing

That’s what they call it. For the longest while I didn’t believe them. The old cars promoted single-file racing, waiting for pitstops which were often under Safety Car conditions. Familiar? It led some to say it is a ‘road course oval’, ‘like an F1 race’. A big event, a great sight, but not a spectacle. I would always argue 55 cars on the Mulsanne Straight was the greater spectacle.

That changed in 2012 with the Dallara DW12. The drivers now race incredibly hard. There is an art to it. Not just passing for the sake of it, but judging when to go and when to hold back, using the draft, knowing when to go inside to defend. This car makes it all possible. It certainly isn’t single file any more!

The first 150 laps is about positioning and fuel strategy, working the yellows, climbing through the field, tailoring your car to the conditions or to work in traffic or not. The last 20 or 30 laps it all goes haywire, the elbows go out and you fight. Some years it is a fuel mileage race, some years it is a flat out thrash. You have to be ready for anything.

In my opinion the Indy 500 now genuinely is the greatest race on the planet. Here’s why:

2014 Race Finish

A crash near the end caused officials to throw a red flag race suspension. At the restart with 6 laps to go, Helio Castroneves (Penske) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti) and team-mate Marco Andretti fight it out. This is real edge-of-your-seat racing. Worth watching on to see the traditional celebration.

2015 Race Finish

Two years ago it was a straight battle between Penske team-mates Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, with two chasing Ganassi drivers Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon on their tails.

2016 Race Finish

And of course last year. This was a nail-biter for very different reasons. The timing of previous stops meant teams were trying to get the cars to last 4 or 5 laps longer than their fuel stint, it was never going to work, so they all started to pit. All except one man. Surely he would come in? Surely he would run out of fuel?

 

Remember, you do not go out and win the Indianapolis 500, you can only do your best to put yourself in position.

The Speedway, she chooses who wins.

Watch: 2017 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona

The US is now firmly into a new era of sportscar racing.

Three complete seasons have now elapsed since the ‘merger’ between the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Series and at last the unified IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship has a new top class to call its own, rather than one with cars inherited from the old era.

Three weeks ago the 2017 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona saw the debut of the brand new LMP2 cars which we will also see in the World Endurance Championship (and European & Asian Le Mans Series). In addition and more interestingly, the new ‘Daytona Prototype international’ cars were seen and it is those that are most exciting. DPi takes the LMP2 as a base and adds in manufacturer support, including engines and bespoke bodywork.

Watch The Race

You can watch the 2017 edition of the race, complete with full IMSA Radio commentary, via the official IMSA YouTube channel below. All rights belong to their respective owners. These only appear embedded because that’s what WordPress does with YouTube links, no copyright infringement is intended.

Below the video are some of my thoughts.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Prototype

The Prototype class really was a combination of a traditional sportscar endurance race mixed with the excitement of recent Rolex 24 Hours! For most of the race the goal was just to get the car to the end. Few did. ‘New car blues’ hit a lot of teams, you never knew who would be next to fall. And yet, Daytona being Daytona, it still contrived to boil down to a fistfight right to the end!

The new DPi Cadillac cars held an advantage in both pace and reliability, but this was no surprise as they had tested far more than anyone else. But you never really knew how it would pan out, and when one of the seemingly indestructible cars, the Whelen Action Express entry, fell away late in the race, it felt as though any car could still win with the Riley P2 car and the Nissan DPi chasing just a lap or two behind. A multi-lap advantage is meaningless if the car breaks down.

As it turned out Cadillac took 1st and 2nd, but Nissan in particular and Mazda both look to have a lot of potential. Once everyone gets their stuff sorted out, it’ll be fantastic.

The WEC-spec LMP2s didn’t fare well. I thought they would do a lot better. Only one car had a near-flawless run, the largely unfancied Riley Multimatic entered by VisitFlorida (formerly Spirit of Daytona). It was only unfancied compared to the Liger and Oreca because the Riley carries higher downforce, it was ‘meant’ to be slower at Daytona and better at twisty tracks, yet proved itself remarkably well. The Ligier and ORECA examples really struggled but I am sure will be on-song by the time we hit the bulk of the season, both in the US and elsewhere.

Prototype Challenge is best left unmentioned, a single car running well while the others fell apart. One had mechanical problems to do with fuel feed. Others looked as though they just didn’t get on with the setups on the cars – whether these were enforced by the BoP or by the tyres or conditions I do not know, but they looked tough to drive. PC has never covered itself in glory at Daytona, or at many other places since roughly around the time they were made to change tyre supplier.. Coincidence?

GT

GTLM, the Le Mans GTE class, was again the highlight of the race as it so often is in the IMSA series. GT in IMSA is almost always better than the WEC equivalent both in strength and depth and again it was true here – a flat out war from start to finish! It also had a fistfight with a near-identical incident in turn 1 as in the P class.

It was no surprise to see Ford and Ferrari up front, but then the rain fell and brought Porsche into the picture, with Corvette playing their trick of the GT1 era of not necessarily being the fastest but always being there at the end.

It was clear from the ability of the GTLM cars in mixed conditions, pulling away from top Prototypes under acceleration before P’s repassed them with higher top end, that Michelins are still the best things to have in the wet.

That is not to underplay the huge GTD class (for GT3 cars) which twisted and turned all race long as different cars and drivers struggled with the cold, changeable conditions. Some teams managed this better than others. Continental laid down instructions which some followed successfully, others ignored them and then complained about it.

It was great to see Mercedes GT3s on the high banks and those new Acuras look stunning. The racing in GTD was really very good and with a big field. I hope it gets the attention it deserves this season.

Result

Class winners:

Prototype
#10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing – Cadillac DPi-V.R
Ricky Taylor / Jordan Taylor / Jeff Gordon / Max Angelelli

GTLM
#66 Ford Chip Ganassi – Ford GT
Joey Hand / Dirk Mueller / Sebastien Bourdais

GTD
#28 Alegra Motorsports – Porsche 911 GT3 R
Daniel Morad / Michael Christensen / Jesse Lazarre / Carlos de Quesada / Michael de Quesada

PC
#38 Performance Tech Motorsports – Oreca FLM09
James French / Patricio O’Ward / Kyle Masson / Nicholas Boulle

Next Race

The next IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship race is the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, on Saturday 18th March 2017.

The race is half as long but the bumps are bone-shaking and really test a car and driver, how will the new Prototypes hold up there?

What To Look Forward To In 2017

There is a lot to look for in the 2017 motorsport season.

I felt something was missing in 2016. I don’t know what it was. Some sort of spark. Maybe it was me, maybe it was other events away from racing, or maybe motorsport just didn’t grab me as much as before – with the exception of IndyCar and MotoGP which were excellent. I didn’t invest as much time in keeping up with WEC and IMSA, something I’m doing over the winter break.

I think that should change this year.

Formula 1

New cars! Better looking cars. No more silly rear wings. Faster over a lap, faster through the corners. Hopefully they’ll look as fast and dramatic as the last time we had high downforce F1 cars, about a decade ago. The drivers are going to have to work hard.

With luck this will shake up the order. Some teams will get it wrong and will spend the year catching up. We’ll see them do it, much like we’ve seen McLaren-Honda get faster through the year over the last two years.

The downside? More downforce usually reduces overtaking opportunities. I wonder whether the larger rear wing will increase the effectiveness of the DRS. I would rather have no DRS – or have it and allow a driver to use it wherever he likes, no zones, no limits.

There should be good news with the tyres. Pirelli are charged with making tyres that allow a driver to push and not conserve so we might see some flat out racing again. Let’s hope they get it right.

How will Valterri Bottas fare at Mercedes alongside Lewis Hamilton? I’m excited to find out. I don’t think he’ll be a pushover. And Hamilton will want to fight after being defeated last year – I think he’ll win another title, but may again trip over himself in doing so.

How will Max Verstappen get on at his second season at the big Red Bull team and how will Dan Ricciardo react? Will Ferrari sink or swim, will Seb Vettel get fed up and move on? Will McLaren be back?

MotoGP

MotoGP is always fun at the front of the field. Even a dominant lead can be lost with a momentary lapse of concentration sending a rider to the floor.

Jorge Lorenzo moves to that hard-to-tame Ducati. Maverick Vinales replaces him at Yamaha alongside Valentino Rossi. Iannone across to Suzuki. I reckon the title fight will be between Marquez and Vinales. I’d love to see Pedrosa up front more often.

How will KTM get on in their first season? Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, Tech3 teammates last year, both move there.

Formula E

I’m excited to see the races at New York and Montreal. I hope to see Jaguar improving through the year. Adam Carroll is vastly underrated and ought to have had a top works drive years ago.

I would like to see a greater energy allocation, more harvesting, as the cars are too energy-restricted. They did grant more allocation this season but they also lengthened the races which offset the benefit. If they’d given more energy for the same distance, everyone could’ve pushed harder in the race. It feels like the series is wasting the opportunity for good races while everyone is cruising around saving energy.

Sebastien Buemi leads after the two rounds held so far, but my tip is to keep watching Felix Rosenqvist.

IndyCar

Some of the best racing in the world will continue to be found in IndyCar. I fully expect the Indy 500 to be a highlight again.

Aero Kit competition is now frozen. In theory this means Honda are at a disadvantage, at least on road and street courses. A spec kit will appear in 2018.

Chip Ganassi Racing are moving back to Honda. With the might of CGR’s resources, joining Andretti’s, I suspect the Honda vs Chevy competition may become more equal.

AJ Foyt’s team go the other way to Chevy. Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly join. I’m starting to think Foyt will have a very good season! Takuma Sato goes the other way, to Andretti.

Josef Newgarden will have the most attention. His was the biggest move in the driver market, joining Team Penske to replace Juan Montoya. (JPM will still contest Indy). It took someone with the talent of Simon Pagenaud a full season to ‘bed in’ at Penske so I think we should go easy on Joe-New, at least this year.

As in 2016 I expect Pagenaud versus Power over the season, too close to call, but you must watch all of the races because really anything can happen from race to race!

World Endurance Championship

It’ll be very strange without Audi competing. Only five LMP1 cars:  2 x Porsche, 2 x Toyota, 1 x ByKolles CLM. We may see another Toyota at Le Mans and surely this is their year for the 24 Hours?

We saw great battles between two manufacturers in the past, Audi vs Peugeot, then Audi vs Toyota, so there’s every reason to think Toyota vs Porsche will be just as good.

All-new cars in LMP2. Which will be quickest? I’m sad they felt the need to restrict it to four chassis makers but I understand the budgetary reasons for it. Hopefully the cost savings will attract more entrants. Rebellion Racing step down from LMP1 with a hell of a driver line-up.

GTE Pro is a balance of performance (BoP) nightmare. Ford and Ferrari ahead last year but Porsche have a new car – and it is a mid-engined 911. Heresy! This could be the best fight in the field. And in 2018 we’ll see the brand new BMW.

GTE Am. Early yet but I’m not seeing a lot of takers. Perhaps it is time to replace it with GT3?

IMSA Sportscars

The story in the US is very different, IMSA is having a resurgence. The Prototype class will use the same brand new LMP2 cars as the WEC. In addition are the new Daytona Prototype international “DPi” cars, which take those LMP2 cars and add manufacturer engines and bespoke bodywork. It is a cost-effective way to bring in manufacturers and it has attracted Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan. It should be a fantastic year in the top class and it stars next week with the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

The GTLM class in IMSA, just like the ALMS before it, is top drawer. Often it is the best race among the 4 classes and it is usually better than the WEC equivalent (which runs to the same rules).

GTD will be numerically dominant with a lot of GT3 cars, no slouches themselves, including the new Acura (Honda) and Lexus. Worth checking out the entry list.

And the much-maligned PC class will finally be put out of its misery at the end of the year! It worked well when it started, but really ought to have been killed off a couple of years ago.

European Le Mans Series

The top class will have those new LMP2 cars which seem to be attracting a lot of attention in this series. LMP3 is also proving popular so there should be a lot of Prototypes in the ELMS again this year. I’d like to see a bigger GT field.

The supporting Michelin Le Mans Cup, featuring LMP3 and GT3 cars in a series of 2-hour races (1 hour at Le Mans before the big race), is also booming. This should be one of the hidden gems of 2017 so do look out for it, especially the LM24 support race.

World Rally Championship

New cars. Faster cars. Okay, some people are heralding them as the second coming of Group B – they are decidedly not that. They aren’t that extreme, with much less power than Gp.B, but with modern suspension, tyres, electronics and all the rest they will be very fast. It is good to see the WRC return to more advanced tech.

Citroen are back, Toyota are back, Hyundai continue and the M-Sport Fords look competitive.

My TV

One more reason this year will be good? I’ve upgraded from a 30″ standard definition TV to a 50″ Ultra HD TV. Wow what an upgrade! Even the size difference is remarkable, let alone the quality.

Okay there’s not much content in UHD, for motorsport basically it is only MotoGP, but I bet it’ll look damn good! (I think F1 is in UHD this year – but I don’t have Sky Sports). Certainly I will be enjoying a lot of stuff in ‘normal’ 1080 HD – and I can’t wait!