Two-times Formula One champ Fernando Alonso didn’t take long to get to grips with turning left at 220mph at Indy.
The Spaniard, who is passing up the Monaco Grand Prix to make his IndyCar debut in the storied Indianapolis 500, only needed 50 laps to pass all three phases of his rookie test, putting him on target to compete in the May 28 race.
In cool and worsening weather conditions, Alonso looked comfortable as he turned his first laps on an oval, and having sailed through his rookie test is now eligible to try to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Practice starts May 15.
Though Alonso has contended with barriers at circuits such as Monaco, modern road racing is generally less intimidating than constantly turning left at the 2.5-mile Indy oval, with its meagre banking, unforgiving walls, strange weather twists and four corners that seem to change lap upon lap.
On his test day, Alonso discovered that the car behaviour changes when blue sky turned murky, wind gusts became more obvious and temperatures dropped to around the 15-degree Celsius mark.
Alonso topped 219mph in less than three hours in the Andretti Autosport Dallara Honda, painted papaya orange in a nod to the colour schemes of some of the early McLaren F1 cars. Then in the afternoon, when he reeled off a further 60 laps, he went faster – 222.548mph (358.156km/h) average.
Pole last year, set by Honda-powered James Hinchcliffe was 230.760 mph (371.372 km/h), a speed that with more practice and understanding of ovals and the cars too, should be within reach of Alonso.
“It’s very sensitive, this place, to wind and to climatic conditions,” Alonso observed. “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.”
When he returns for practice, the biggest challenge in his assimilation will be to account for other cars in traffic. Alonso can expect to see as many as 32 other cars on track at IMS during practice and in the race.
“Well, it's going to be probably the biggest challenge, running in traffic,” he said, before talking too about coming to terms with setting up the car. “The guys, they make constant changes to the car. One on the steering wheel while running, and those on the pit lane, those tiny changes, tuning the car perfectly on the week for the qualifying and then doing the same on the race, and sometimes also on the pit stops, getting up to speed until the last part of the race.”
Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 winner and collector of 52 career Indy car victories as well as a Formula One world title, was impressed by Alonso’s adaptation, suggesting the rookie looked like he had been running at the track for two decades.
Alonso’s motivation is to pursue the coveted motor sporting triple crown. He has already won at Monaco. Now he wants the Indy 500 crown and then off into the future the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Interest in Alonso’s Indy shot is already high.
The live internet stream of twice Formula One world champion's first IndyCar test pulled more than two million views last Wednesday.
Broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook, the test at the Brickyard was Alonso's first experience of the Dallara-Honda prior to the official tryouts as part of his Indy 500 debut late this month.
Dozens of reporters covered his solo test, and speedway President Doug Boles said ticket sales are cranking up.
Although a private test arranged by McLaren, Honda and his Indy team Andretti Autosport, the circuit didn’t miss the chance to publicise their new recruit, arranging a proper broadcast of the event involving a studio panel, in-depth interviews and fly-on-the-wall access.
Reaching peaks of more than 70,000 concurrent viewers at times, the official figures recorded by YouTube and Facebook showed a combined overall 2,149,000 views.
It was also one of YouTube's top 10 trending videos of the day.
Putting these numbers into perspective, the Alonso test pulled more pairs of eyes than many popular race categories, like F1 and MotoGP, manage.
New owners of F1, Liberty Media will not be oblivious to the popularity of the video of a midweek, single-car test.
The coverage of Alonso at Indianapolis's included access to his chat with engineers, his laps on the oval, and feedback as he built up his speed.
But F1’s inherent obsession with secrecy, with cars screened from cameras and prying eyes, probably means Liberty could be hard-pressed to convince the grand prix teams to become more generous with access.