Indianapolis (AP) — Fernando Alonso got his first real lesson in IndyCar racing on Wednesday.
It’s not easy, even for a two-time Formula One champion.
On a cool, brisk day that saw racing conditions worsen by the hour, the 35-year-old Spaniard turned his first laps on an oval, passed his rookie test and is now eligible to try to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 later this month. He got Michael Andretti’s No. 29 car up to 222.548 mph and avoided crashing when two birds flew into his car as he turned a lap clocked at a tick less than 220 mph.
Welcome to Indy, champ.
“It’s very sensitive, this place, to wind and to climatic conditions,” Alonso said. “Everyone was telling me this before coming here, but yeah, we confirm it today. We need to be always ready to set up the car for whatever conditions we have there.”
Alonso’s decision to race in one of the crown jewel races in North America has sent a wave of anticipation through IndyCar. Dozens of reporters covered his solo test, and speedway President Doug Boles said ticket sales are picking up. Race organizers expect the crowd to be the second-most attended 500 in 20 years, trailing only last year’s sellout for the 100th running of the 500.
Alonso isn’t coming to Indy to sell tickets; he intends to add the second leg of auto racing’s triple crown to his resume. Alonso already has won at Monaco. He has not won at Le Mans.
Alonso became one of the world’s greatest drivers by making right and left turns on road and street courses, running occasionally in the rain and usually without concrete walls surrounding him.
At the historic 2.5-mile Brickyard, Alonso must contend with unforgiving walls, regular weather delays and four corners that seem to change like the wind. Alonso found out the hard way when the blue sky turned gray, temperatures dropped into the low 50s Fahrenheit and the gusts picked up.
He even acknowledged that going into the first turn on his first full lap, he thought was flat out — before realizing his right foot wasn’t completely down.
Still, Alonso aced his first big test.
He only needed 50 laps to pass all three phases of his rookie test, setting him up to compete in the May 28 showcase race. He topped the 219 mph threshold in less than three hours and was even better in the afternoon when he drove another 60 laps.
Rain wiped out the final two hours of practice time but car owner Michael Andretti said the team couldn’t have done much more anyway because Alonso was out of tires.
The only other glitch came when two birds flew right into Alonso’s path. They vanished in a puff and crew members eventually cleaned the remains off the car.
“I saw one bird approaching Turn 3 in the penultimate run, and I just lift off and avoid the bird. Probably I will not do that on the race day,” he said. “But today I save one life there. I didn’t manage to save the other two.”
Alonso will be the sixth entry in the Indy 500 for Andretti Autosport, a team that includes Alexander Rossi.
Last year, the ex-Formula One driver won in his first 500 start. Now the 25-year-old American finds himself in the somewhat awkward position of trying to help the 35-year-old Alonso, who is sixth on F1’s career victory list with 32.
“I can’t add any more than Ryan (Hunter-Reay) or Marco (Andretti),” Rossi said, referring to his teammates. “If he asked (for advice), I think I’ll point him in their direction.”
Andretti and his father, Mario, both expect Alonso to be a contender and the early results look promising.
“It was great. He did perfect. Now we can go play a little bit,” Michael Andretti said after the morning session. “He’s the real deal. I think he’s going to have a really good month.”
The other Andretti, Michael’s son, Marco, also pitched in by setting up the car for Alonso, who strapped himself into the bright orange Honda and quickly got up to speed.
Alonso, who drives for struggling McLaren in F1, now heads home with plenty of knowledge, data to study and time to come up with a plan that will help him get ready for a new set of challenges when practice opens May 15. Among other things, he will be on the track with other cars soon enough.
“It felt new to me and it felt a little bit, yeah, strange, driving anticlockwise and at those speeds,” Alonso said. “It’s been a very helpful day in terms of knowing all these different worlds, these different techniques on driving and get up to speed a little bit. Still a long way to go, but I think I’m happy with this first step.”