WHEN Rubens Barrichello first heard that Fernando Alonso would pass up the Monaco Grand Prix to drive in next month’s Indianapolis 500 he thought it was a hoax. So did many others.
Barrichello, who tried IndyCar racing in 2012 after his own F1 career ran out of steam, is surprised (like other past and present drivers) that Alonso would forsake the plum Monaco race for the perils of Indy, which is just six weeks away.
In fact McLaren executive director Zac Brown, an American with a sports car racing background, has revealed that the idea of Alonso racing in the Indy 500 was initially made in a joking fashion before the start of the season. In a relaxed moment, Brown off-handedly said that one day the two should maybe do the 500 together. Sometime later, In Melbourne over breakfast, Alonso raised the topic with team racing director Eric Boullier, speaking of Honda’s great history at Indy and then declaring he’d like to become the first driver since Graham Hill to nail the Triple Crown – Monaco, Le Mans and the Indy 500.
Brown said he and Alonso spoke more about the idea at a photo shoot in the US after the opening race of the season. Then over the GP weekend in Shanghai, the half joke firmed up with specific detail.
Alonso will compete at Indy for Andretti Autosport, run by the former McLaren F1 driver Michael Andretti, whose team – powered by a Honda engine – won the race last year with Alexander Rossi, a rookie with at least a little oval experience.
Alonso’s frustration with McLaren has been very real – sometimes raw. He was forced to retire in three consecutive races whilst remarkably dragging the sluggish Honda-powered MCL32 into points positions in two of those GPs.
While Red Bull’s Christian Horner has described McLaren’s Brown as 'barking mad' to let Alonso race the Indianapolis 500 with so little experience of ovals, the strange call looks like a bigger picture ploy by the team to keep the star driver happy.
Alonso can’t win another world championship this year, and will struggle to get a podium result in F1. But he is a racer and Indy looms as a gettable target in his mind.
Nigel Mansell made an excellent transition to IndyCar racing, departing F1 after winning his 1992 world title and then capturing the US series crown at his first attempt the following year.
Talking to Autosport, Barrichello said that based on his own experiences, Alonso should expect the unexpected in his new race experience at the Brickyard. He warned of the traffic and the turbulence.
The 2012 Indy 500 was Barrichello’s first oval race and he acquitted himself well, despite his lack of familiarity with the nuances of constantly turning left. He qualified 10th and finished 11th.
But Nelson Piquet’s experiences at Indy should serve as a cautionary tale. The triple F1 champ, hired by Team Menard to drive in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, appeared comfortable driving at high speeds despite never before racing on an oval. Then, during practice, Piquet’s car slammed the wall after running over debris, the Brazilian suffering serious foot and ankle injuries. A lengthy rehab followed before he returned a year later, qualifying 13th but retiring from the race with engine problems.
Reaction among drivers has been mixed. Daniel Ricciardo commented: "I would not want to miss Monaco. I think Fernando is missing a good one, but then again if you are not fighting at the front it probably would be a long race around there. So Indy...? I'd take Daytona 500 over Indy.
“Indy kind of scares me actually!”
Alonso has just over six weeks until he lines up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, during which time he will compete in three more races – including the just passed Bahrain Grand Prix. The Spaniard will fly from the third and final one of those races, the Spanish Grand Prix, straight to Indianapolis for two weeks of practice ahead of the race.
Lewis Hamilton was more positive: "I think, firstly, it's great that a driver is able to do that [race in the Indy 500]. I think us drivers should be able to do more than one series and there was a period of time in the past when drivers were able to do multiple series, so I think it is pretty cool that he is able to do it.”
Alonso will be jamming in some IndyCar familiarisation between his F1 commitments. He will meet the team, have a seat fitting, do some time on the simulator and, between races in Russia and Spain, he’s hoping to include a private test. Then two week of practice and qualifying at the Brickyard.
Alonso says he’ll spend his waking hours of the flights look at old Indy 500 race videos.
Reserve driver Jenson Button will replace Alonso for the Monaco race but in an indictment of modern F1 will miss any chance of testing the 2017 McLaren before the race. McLaren team boss Eric Boullier says that Button spent 17 years in F1 and would be better instead to spend time driving a simulator than the actual 2017 car.