Reflections on Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500

Back in early 2016, Galen Rupp decided to run a marathon. This was a remarkable decision because he is one of the best 10,000-metre runners on the planet, having won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics.

Even more remarkable, though, were Rupp’s marathon results. His first competitive race at the 42.2-kilometre distance was the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon, which doubled as the Olympic Trials. He won the race ahead of 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2014 Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi and qualified for the Olympics.

His second marathon was even more impressive. It took place on the closing day of the Rio Olympics and Rupp held off 2015 world champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie to win the bronze medal (Rupp had also qualified for the 10,000-metre event, where, a week before the marathon, he finished fifth).

Back in early 2017, Fernando Alonso decided to race in the Indianapolis 500. This was a remarkable decision because he is one of the best Formula One drivers on the planet, having won two World Drivers’ Championships and 32 grands prix (sixth on the all-time list).

Even more remarkable, though, were Alonso’s Indy 500 results. Not only did he qualify fifth, but after dropping back at the start, he recovered to eventually lead 27 laps (only two drivers led more) and was still in contention for the win when his Honda engine failed with 21 laps remaining (a familiar situation for the Spaniard, given his last few years driving a McLaren-Honda F1 car).

Ripping around the bruising Brickyard at more than 350 km/h is about as similar to grand prix racing as running a 10,000-metre race on a track is to a marathon on city streets. That is to say, not very (no comment on the relative difficulty of running a marathon on a grand prix circuit). The mechanics are the same—accelerate, brake and steer or put shoes on and run—but the skills required and the nuances are very different.

To be fair, Alonso’s success at Indy was not a complete surprise, but that he looked so comfortable so quickly in what is an inherently uncomfortable setting is surprising. His supreme ability and adaptability, like Rupp’s, allowed him to overcome the unique challenges of the Indy 500 despite his inexperience with IndyCars in general and oval racing in particular.

That said, there is obviously unfinished business for the Spaniard at Indianapolis. He has already said that he “definitely” wants to return to Indy—whether it will be next year remains to be seen, with his F1 future up in the air.

If Alonso stays at McLaren next year, and the team are still not challenging for podiums and race wins, presumably they would be happy for him to give the 500 another shot, even at the expense of Monaco. McLaren received an immense amount of publicity, particularly in the U.S., that they wouldn’t have if Alonso had raced in the Monaco Grand Prix.

However, if Alonso decides to move on in search of one more F1 title, Indy might have to wait. A team fighting it out near the top of the constructors’ standings would not be keen to have one of their drivers skipping a race, especially with the potential danger lurking at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Although Alonso’s first 500 ended in disappointment, he can look to Jim Clark’s Indy results for inspiration. The Scot’s 1965 triumph at the Brickyard is fondly remembered as the first for a current F1 driver, but it was actually his third try at Indy.

In 1963, he qualified fifth and led 28 laps (sound familiar?), but ultimately settled for second behind Parnelli Jones. The following year, Clark qualified on pole and led 14 laps, but ultimately retired due to a broken suspension. In 1965, the Scot—skipping Monaco for Indy (sound familiar?)—qualified second and led 190 of the 200 laps to win in a dominant performance.

Alonso’s performance this year certainly puts to bed any lingering doubts about whether his lack of oval experience would be a hindrance. The Spaniard is clearly not just a great grand prix driver—he is a great driver, period.

Having seen him adapt so quickly to the peculiarities of IndyCar and oval racing, he should also have no problem adjusting when he decides to take a shot at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well. The Triple Crown is still a distant dream at this point, but the dream is slowly getting closer to reality. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

(Featured image: McLaren Honda Andretti via Twitter)


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