Fernando Alonso’s first test session in an Indy car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was considered “private” although much of the motorsports world was watching.
The private test attracted a sizable contingent of local Indianapolis media, including all the local television stations, along with a few international media outlets who came to watch the two-time Formula 1 World Champion from Spain at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was both his first time in an Indy car and the first time on an oval for Alonso
What they witnessed was impressive, as the McLaren F1 driver piloted the orange and black No. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda with the skill of a proven veteran.
Even 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1978 Formula 1 World champion and 1967 Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti was impressed.
“Fernando Alonso is the real deal,” Mario Andretti said. “He tries to use the track as much as possible. I love to see him doing it even though at this stage he probably shouldn’t do it. That shows how comfortable he is.”
Fernando Alonso’s top speed in testing on Wednesday was 222.548 mph.
Alonso even drove below the white line several times.
“I mowed a lot of grass in the turns around here in my days,” Mario Andretti said.
Team owner Michael Andretti called his performance in ROP “perfect.”
Alonso quickly completed all phases of his rookie test and was finished by 11:54 a.m. ET.
After that, it was time for Alonso to let it fly, except anything in his path was at risk including two birds that were pulverized by the rear wheels of Alonso’s Honda late in Wednesday afternoon’s test session.
“I saved a bird earlier in the first session but the last time I went out I was unable to save those two birds,” Alonso quipped. “I slowed down for them.
“In the race, I won’t slow down.”
Alonso went through all five sets of tires allotted by the test and came up with a sixth set that was set aside for the “Month of May” practice so that the McLaren F1 driver could run laps at caution pace, practice entry and exit from pit lane and a few other aspects the driver needs to learn.
Alonso ended his day at IMS with 110 laps completed, turning a top lap speed of 222.548 mph.
“He was mega,” said McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown. “I’m not surprised. He’s the two-time World Champion that we know he is. He is a world-class driver who has been very well studied. He took his time but it didn’t take him very long to get up to speed.
“What we are doing here is really important. That is the power of Fernando. The power of McLaren and the power of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The combination of the three makes it worldwide news in motorsports.
“So far, mission accomplished.”
“I don’t know that Bernie could have blocked this move but I can say that now because he’s not running Formula 1,” Brown said. “I might have been a little more shy.”
As for Alonso, it was a day of tremendous progress and excitement.
“One thing about Fernando is he asks all the right questions,” said Andretti Autosport team owner Michael Andretti, a former driver at the 500 who holds many records for non-winning drivers.
The driver and team chose to work through a scheduled lunch break because of impending rain that was moving into the Indianapolis area. But the entire test was completed and the team was out of tires before the first drop of rain ever fell.
This was just another day in Alonso’s big adventure as he prepares to realize a career dream of competing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 on May 28.
“So far, this has been a good experience but now starts the real deal,” Alonso said after passing the three phases of his rookie test.
With Andretti Autosport technical director Eric Bretzman serving as Alonso’s engineer, Michael Andretti and Dave Popielarz as chief mechanic, the driver quickly meshed with his team.
“Gil de Ferran and I have worked several weeks on some changes I was facing today Now, we can work on a lot of other areas. Before today, I was doing races on the simulator and you aren’t sure if you can trust that or not.
“Now, we have a lot more in the pocket that we can do.”
Alonso’s first Indy 500 memory was Jacques Villeneuve’s 1995 Indy 500 win and then joining Formula One. His next memory of Indy was Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2000 Indianapolis 500 victory before he, too, left for Formula One.
“When I first came here in 2004 I was taking pictures of the entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the ‘Racing Capitol of the World,’” Alonso recalled when he competed at the Speedway in the United States Grand Prix.
“Now, that I have been in the car I can focus on the business at hand and that is the Indianapolis 500. After this I want to go down and talk to Gil about other changes and the technical aspect of the car.”
“Thanks to the rookie program the first couple of laps you lift off going into the turns and try to drive to your target,” Alonso said. “After that was over I tried to run flat out because I knew Marco was able to go flat out in turn 1. I was convinced 100 percent that I was flat out but the telemetry showed I wasn’t.
“By the third or fourth lap I was able to go flat out. To feel the respect of the speed of the car is pure adrenaline so it was a good day.”
The Formula 1 car feels easier to Alonso because the level of downforce and sophistication gives more grip.
“Here, the feeling is raw,” Alonso said. “The feeling is real racing. The car can be unpredictable. Here, the driver has more input into what the car can do.
“The track conditions changed more as the day went on. I think the conditions were better in the morning but I have no idea because I have no experience here whether it is good or bad or fast or slow. It’s very sensitive, this place, to win and climatic conditions. We need to always be ready to set up the car for whatever conditions we encounter. The track is narrower than I thought. To have other cars out there at the same time will be an experience.”
Alonso hopes to have a great experience in this year’s Indianapolis 500 as one of six Andretti Autosport drivers in the 33-car starting lineup.
These cars don’t have the technology and sophistication of an F1 car but in many ways, that makes them more fun to drive, according to Alonso.
“Here, they ask you if you are ready, you say yes, and they switch on the car,” Alonso said. “In Formula 1, it takes six minutes to fire up the car to test all of the components on the car.
“Here, it’s more fun because you switch on the engine and you race.”
Brown believes days like this will help make McLaren a regular part of the Indianapolis 500 as it once was in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It’s been really well received,” Brown said. “It’s a great story and one that will drive exposure for everyone.
“Today was a successful day and helps build the case to come back and do it again. Today was a 10 out of 10 from what we wanted to achieve.”