The disappointment of failing to even start the Russian Grand Prix was a reminder why Fernando Alonso has chosen to take on the Indianapolis 500 instead of the Monaco Grand Prix this year. Tomorrow he will have his first experience of lapping the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an IndyCar.
As is always the case when a shock news story like this comes out of the blue, a tidal wave of coverage ensued. Largely lost amid the hype was the question of how much Alonso actually knows about this form of racing.
An IndyCar may be a high-performance single-seater much like an F1 car. But racing at average speeds of 370kph (230mph) on super-speedways is a highly specialised discipline, a world apart from what Alonso is used to. He knows this, and tomorrow’s test will be his first step towards mastering it.
But one quote from Alonso which received little attention revealed he’s also been paying attention to the subtleties of IndyCar racing and put serious though into how he’s going to win it.
“[In Formula One] we don’t see our team mate in the first corner after the start different than any other driver. We consider him as an opponent.”
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“When we are on the track in Formula One, there is no help for each other. Here, if anyone needs anything in the last ten laps of the race and you have no options to win the race, you try to help your team mate win it. That’s something that is very good.”
Alonso has done his homework. He is going to the Indianapolis 500 with the Andretti team in an attempt to win the race as a rookie. And what he describes is exactly how former F1 driver Alexander Rossi scored his shock win in the race last year.
“If we run out on the back stretch, we’ll coast to start/finish…”
By its nature, oval racing tends to feature frequent caution periods. This shapes the teams’ strategies, as they can usually expect to be able to make a late pit stop under yellow flags and run flat-out until the end.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Last year Rossi won thanks to an audacious economy run. As the video above explains he covered the final 33 laps of green flag running without a pit stop, thanks in part to being able to save fuel by slipstreaming Andretti team mates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell.
As Alonso’s remarks show, this detail has clearly made an impression on him. He’s already considered how it will play a role in his Indianapolis 500 bid this weekend.
Past events have shown no driver on the grid is more alert than Alonso to the possibilities of using a team mate in order to help the team’s other car. The ‘Fernando is faster than you’ instruction to Felipe Massa when he and Alonso were team mates at Ferrari in 2010 is just the most obvious example.
He also tried to use Massa to help him win the title at the season finale. During another down-to-the-write title fight Massa inconveniently out-qualified Alonso, so the team incurred a needless penalty on his car to move Alonso forward one space. They even hatched a plan for Alonso to use Massa’s slipstream to improve his lap time in qualifying at Monza, which failed.
Another occasion when Alonso’s team mate was sacrificed to help him win is one of F1’s most notorious episodes. Alonso denied any involvement in it. Massa, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains unconvinced.
Of course there’s no reason to assume anything as extreme as some of these scenarios is going to happen. But it’s striking that Alonso has immediately picked up on this aspect of IndyCar tactics which is seen little outside of super-speedway races.
With Andretti, winners of two of the last three Indy 500s, Alonso can take maximum advantage of support from team mates. Their six-car squad is currently the largest on the Indianapolis 500 entry list. It includes past winners Rossi and Hunter-Reay plus ex-F1 driver Takuma Sato who came agonisingly close to victory in 2012.
Barring a shock result at his home grand prix next week, Alonso will have gone four years without a victory by the time he is stood at the Brickyard listening to Jim Cornelison belting out “Back Home in Indiana”. This may be his only chance to win anything for the forseeable future. Clearly he is not going to let any opportunity to win this race pass him by.
But it cuts both ways. Depending how the final stage of the race unfolds Alonso might just as easily be called on to help Rossi, Hunter-Reay or another of his five team mates win this time.
That could be a prudent long-term move if he’s going to return to Andretti for another shot at this leg of the ‘Triple Crown’. But Alonso isn’t planning on skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to help someone else win the Indianapolis 500.
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