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Why Alonso’s Indy dream is alive despite disaster qualifying

by Jack Benyon
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

A practice crash and a woeful qualifying performance? It’s beginning to sound a bit 2019 in the Fernando Alonso Indianapolis 500 camp, isn’t it? Well, this year you’d be wrong to rule out an Alonso win on what we’ve seen so far.

Honda dominated in qualifying, smashing the Chevrolet-powered cars out of contention from the moment the boost level was turned up to simulate qualifying runs on what is known as ‘Fast Friday’ practice sessions. Only one Chevrolet-powered car entered the top five in qualifying, earning the right to ‘fight’ for pole on Sunday in the ‘Fast Nine’ shootout. It’s a fight it won’t win.

Alonso could only manage 26th, despite a relatively early run which should have helped before higher temperatures increased tyre degradation. His team-mates Pato O’Ward (15th) and Oliver Askew (21st) took second attempts, and both bettered their more experienced team-mate.

“I mean, we don’t have the speed maybe to compete at the very top,” said Alonso of qualifying. “But we had a clean run. All four laps were flat and we had a good balance on the car. So I was reasonably happy with the run. And, you know, I think it is what we have at the moment.

“The focus is on race day, and qualifying we knew maybe this morning or yesterday, we find out that we were not maybe ultra competitive on the high boost.

Later he added: “We turn the boost up and you trim [remove downforce] a little bit on the car, and it’s a completely different set-up and a completely different behaviour of the cars. And it seems that we made a step backwards on that side and we were not inside the top 10 or top 15 [in qualifying] as the previous two days.

“So we enter qualifying just trying to put a good run together, not having any mistakes, executing the run, is what we try to do and happy for that, but obviously missing a little bit of speed. And that’s something that, not much we can do now.”

While the casual fan looking out for Alonso may jump to the conclusion that his chances of victory are ruined, it’s way too quick to rule him out.

For starters, take pretty much any of the leading Chevrolet teams. They all struggled in qualifying. In fact, the four previous winners driving Chevrolets failed to make the fast nine. Three of the Penske cars qualified out of the top 20, with last year’s pole-sitter and winner Simon Pagenaud in 25th.

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Pagenaud is an interesting case study in himself. He qualified third at Texas to start the season, but since then he’s qualified 20th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 23rd. However, he has four top fives in six races and is second in the championship!

Good race strategy and tyre management has proven this year in IndyCar that you can race through the field.

OK, Indy is its own beast. And this year, with the addition of the aeroscreen, it is yet to be seen how difficult overtaking will be. Views on how much of an effect it will have on racing have differed from ‘not much’ to ‘drastic’, but it’s the same every year. Every year drivers worry that it’s going to be impossible to overtake, but more often than not it’s not as bad as expected.

Pagenaud was the standout driver in practice, and transporting back to Wednesday and Thursday’s true practice simulations is where we get a first glimmer of hope for Alonso.

Don’t forget, the Arrow McLaren SP team is a product of the well established Schmidt Peterson outfit – unlike last year’s McLaren effort helped by Carlin for Alonso – and it has already reaped the rewards of increased McLaren involvement and added personnel with podiums for both drivers in IndyCar this year, and O’Ward sits fourth in the points.

From the minute the team rolled off the truck, it has had pace in traffic. Most expect Pagenaud has the best car in this setting, but this went under the radar slightly as things often do at Indy. It’s the classic ‘distracted by the shiny thing’, the shiny thing being a rapid 229mph+ lap set with a stonking tow which makes it almost unrepresentative compared the rest of the field – while others working through quiet programmes outside the attention of the tow go fairly unnoticed.

Speaking after his qualifying run, Askew reckons he has one of the best cars in traffic – “we can follow just as close as anybody can” – and the drivers still have two sessions to fettle. Alonso has saved some tyres up for this exact reason, and while crashing on Thursday afternoon damaged his car, it had little overall impact on his event. The car was fixed, he didn’t miss much running in comparison with his rivals and his confidence was undaunted in what he described as a positive Friday programme.

All in all, the two days of race running practice were enough to give Alonso some positivity that all is not lost in what he describes as a “wild” event.

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When asked by The Race how confident he was in his new team that they could improve further and overcome a low starting position, he said: “I’m very confident,

“I think, it’s what we saw in the first two days. I think our three cars were at the level of Penske, Ed Carpenter, maybe Andretti was a little bit ahead of everyone already from Wednesday, but the rest of the teams I think we were in a half a mile or one mile per hour distance.

“So I’m positive and optimistic that, you know, we should have a good race next Sunday, but still always work to do. You will love to have more time, more tyres and keep fine-tuning the car. So I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s afternoon session and carb day. And yeah, fine-tune a little bit more the set-up but reasonably optimistic for the race set-up.”

On the same subject he added: “The challenge is always to keep the car handling well, in traffic and in front, that’s a very different car to manage. And to have a set-up that you can combine these two feelings is going to be probably the challenge for everyone.

“But I think I felt good on Wednesday and Thursday, the progress that we made on that aspect.”

At this point, it would be handy to go into my bag of laptimes and pull out some Edd Straw-like statistical lap-time analysis, but in response to that I can tell you that Pagenaud finished 12th and 27th in Wednesday and Thursday’s race-run led practice respectively. He didn’t even feature in the top 10 in terms of best 30-lap average, which is effectively a stint. And yet he’s been chosen as the favourite from that…

It’s mainly from what you can ascertain by watching the cars on track, how quick his closing speed is and how easily he can overtake. In that order, it’s fast, and very easily.

Alonso also failed to feature in that 30-lap average on Wednesday, but his team looks racey in, well, race trim, and there’s a squadron of engineering know-how led by Indianapolis 500 winning engineer Craig Hampson, who won numerous Champ Car titles with Sebastien Bourdais as well. Alonso calls him “the man”.

Ultimately, the other thing to remember here is that Alonso has experienced the 500 and knows what to expect. And he’s coming in more motivated than ever.

We now know he won’t be returning to Indy as long as he is racing for Renault in Formula 1, which is a contracted 2021 and 2022 assault. So he’s approaching this like it’s his last attempt for some time. Alonso isn’t going to be skipping around the paddock painting rainbows in the sky and dancing into the sunset, it’s not his character. But there’s a steely determination behind this year’s bid.

Asked by The Race about if reaching a certain point in your career makes it easier to deal with less than ideal days, Alonso replied: “I mean, I came here trying to fight for the win in the 500, which is a massive challenge.

Ntt Indycar Series 104th Running Of The Indianapolis 500

“You know, in a season off, I could be sitting in my living room right now watching qualifying here, qualifying in Barcelona, and preparing with Renault maybe next year’s challenge as well.

“But I came here, as I came to Dakar, you know, completely out of my environment and out of my experience.

“So every lap I do out there, it’s a learning process for me. I have a lot to improve, I know that and I try to be better every lap. But, you know, I try at least because next Sunday, anything can happen. And I prefer to be here and maybe have the luck that it happened next Sunday than to be at home watching television.

“But I know how difficult it is to be competitive. I knew from yesterday that we were not at the speed to fight for the top nine or something. So today, I just wanted to execute a nice run with no mistakes from my side, no mistakes from set-up, no mistakes from tools inside the car, is what we need.

“So it’s not that I’m relaxed, but it’s more or less the position we expected. But this doesn’t change our hopes for the race. That’s probably summarising the day.”

It just sounds like a driver that’s ferociously motivated for the main event, free of the shackles of anything that isn’t that end result. OK, of course he would have liked to have qualified on pole, but he knew on Friday that wasn’t going to happen. He’s already accepted it and moved on to planning ways to improve his race pace in his usual painstaking and methodical manner.

It’s true, it was a disaster of a qualifying session. And the team – including but not limited to Alonso – could have executed better, proven by the fact that a rookie in a Chevrolet-powered car qualified seventh and Penske managed 13th.

However, as is the case with Pagenaud and Power, you’d be mad to condemn Alonso’s Indy 500 bid this year based on what we’ve seen so far. It’s been messy, scruffy, even, but unlike last year, his race won’t be decided by qualifying and Kyle Kaiser.

Ntt Indycar Series 104th Running Of The Indianapolis 500

“I think everyone is excited to be more relaxed this year, knowing that,” said Alonso on his thoughts of knowing coming in that he couldn’t be bumped from the starting order as there’s only 33 entries.

“But I think this year, I was maybe confident enough that in case we needed, there is maybe more performance or more risk to take and then go into the race.

“As last year we were always on the backfoot and always on the limit, so it’s less pressure. Yes, for sure for everyone, but I think this year that the whole event has been a little bit calmer and a little bit smoother for ourselves.”

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