With the 101st, we have a true international star to follow, and so far, through the first week of on-track activity, the two-time Formula 1 champion has been anything but hype. If running competitively through five days of practice wasn’t enough of a statement, Fernando Alonso went out in pre-qualifying on Saturday and locked himself into a shot at the pole on Sunday. He followed it up by taking fifth on the grid …18 days after turning his first lap in an Indy car, first lap on an oval, and first lap around the wickedly fast, often-lethal IMS.
As is often the case, the drivers in Alonso’s rearview mirrors help tell the story of how impressive he’s been on his Brickyard debut. 2013 Indy winner Tony Kanaan will start seventh. 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay starts 10th. Two-time winner Juan Montoya is 18th. Three-time winner Helio Castroneves will roll off for the start in 19th. Not bad for a rookie.
The 35-year-old native of Spain is a hit, and it’s fair to say his international acclaim as one of the best and most popular drivers in the world has played a large part in the rabid fandom we’ve seen at Indy. That said, it’s also worth adding some context to Alonso-mania at the 500.
Change his name to Fred Allen, rookie oval driver from Idaho, and he’d still be the No. 1 story of the event, minus the vast global interest. An aging driver with zero oval experience rocks up and looks like a veteran from the outset while displacing some of the biggest names in the race? I realize we still have a 500-mile contest to run on Sunday, but I don’t need to wait until it’s over to praise Alonso.
And he’ll have 200 laps and 800 total turns to make a mistake, a lapse in good judgement, or get caught in another driver’s error. Indy’s Fernando Alonso Show could have an unrewarding ending, or it could surpass everyone’s expectations with a trip to Victory Lane.
This year’s hook, the key memory for the 101st, will orbit around Fernando. What a fun ride it has been so far.