Fernando Alonso’s appearance in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 isn’t a novelty act.
The two-time Formula 1 champion is a serious contender for the checkered flag. While he doesn’t have the IndyCar experience that polesitter Scott Dixon has or the innate understanding of the fabled 2.5-mile track like three-time champion Helio Castroneves does, Alonso is potentially the most gifted driver in the field.
That ability plus the a Honda engine that’s far superior relative to the field than the one that powers him in Formula 1 means Alonso has a chance to check off a second box in racing’s Triple Crown.
Only Graham Hill has won the Indianapolis 500, Monaco Grand Prix — Formula 1’s most storied race — and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the famed French endurance race. Alonso, who won the F1 title in 2005 and 2006, has two Monaco titles to his name.
With a Honda McLaren that’s been so bad in 2017 that it’s even stopped working before the Russian Grand Prix began, this season was the perfect opportunity for Alonso to start his chase of Hill.
“I know it is a one-off because immediately after Indianapolis I will be in Canada and my full focus remains in F1 — this remains a one off but who knows the future also I will attempt more one-off races,” Alonso said in April via ESPN. “Of course the ‘Triple Crown is probably one of the biggest challenges I can have in front of me.”
The list of winners of the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix is pretty exclusive too. Outside of Hill, only Juan Pablo Montoya has won at both Indianapolis (2000 and 2015) and Monaco (2003).
Indianapolis has been kind to F1 champions in the past. Drivers like Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villenueve have both won at Indianapolis and taken a Formula 1 title. Before Alonso, Villenueve was the last F1 champ to start at Indy, finishing 14th in 2014.
But Alonso’s presence at Indianapolis is a far bigger deal. At least in the motorsports world. When he made his final start, Villenueve was at the end of his driving career and more recently known in the United States for his aggressive driving in the Xfinity Series than his 1997 F1 title or his 1995 Indianapolis 500 win. Alonso is the first full-time F1 driver to skip the Monaco Grand Prix since the race was moved to the same weekend as the 500 in 1987.
He’s also the biggest name to drop in to the race since 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch attempted both the 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the same day in 2014. Busch finished sixth in the 500, driving for the same Andretti Autosport team that’s fielding a car for Alonso in Sunday’s race.
Busch, who didn’t have any IndyCar experience until he started prepping for the 500, is proof that the right combination of ability and equipment can make a 500 newbie an instant contender. But he also had some advantages that Alonso doesn’t.
First, Busch had run multiple Cup Series race at Indianapolis. He had already turned 1000s of laps at the track before he jumped into an IndyCar there for the first time. And 500-mile races with eight or nine pit stops were nothing new for him too. In F1, something’s gone wrong if a team pits more than two or three times a race.
But two weeks of practice along with rookie orientation is a lot of repetition for a driver of Alonso’s caliber. And Andretti won last year’s 500 with a driver who has more experience in Formula 1 than IndyCar.
Alexander Rossi, a former reserve driver for the now-defunct Manor team, entered the 2016 Indianapolis 500 with just five IndyCar starts and a best finish of 10th. But he played a different pit strategy than the race’s leaders and, as the fastest cars in the race had to pit just before the checkered flag, inherited the lead with four laps to go and never relinquished it.
A lot has to go right for Alonso to be in the same position Rossi was in a year ago. He has to keep his car out of trouble for over 450 miles — a tougher task than you’d think. Many Indy 500 favorites have had their hearts broken over the race’s final stage.
And, just as importantly, he has to get a little luck to be in position to seize a win. You don’t win two F1 championships without being a great and adaptable driver. And luck can tend to correspond with a driver’s ability.
“I think this is the one race you go into where you actually don’t have a plan, you kind of just roll with it, and that’s what we did last year because we had to because my pit stops took about a minute and a half — I’m kidding, but close,” Rossi said. “So we had to adjust on the fly.
“This race because of the yellows, because of the length of it, and because how many times you can kind of move forward and backwards in positions, there’s not really a set strategy. It’s just about taking it one lap at a time and executing each of those laps. And then your plan kind of comes into play in the last 20, 25 laps if you’re in the front, and then you start to have a process that you go through.”
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