Indy 500 rivals laud Alonso’s presence

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Fernando Alonso

Some observers and fans of international motor sports acclaim Fernando Alonso as the best driver alive, and his decision to drive in the Indianapolis 500 rocked the racing world on both sides of the Atlantic.

Formula One is surprised and disappointed to lose Alonso, even for just one race, the Monaco Grand Prix.

IndyCar is thrilled to have him, even if some teams think Alonso presents a considerable, unanticipated threat to beat them to the checkered flag.

The two-time world champion — a title reserved racing for the Formula One champion — possesses the skill, passion and daring that mark him as a great racer.

“It’s always a subjective topic to say who is the best in the world,” said veteran racing broadcaster Leigh Diffey, who is in Monaco to provide the play-by-play for NBC Sports. “But, if I was picking a super team, he’d be my captain.”

Widely regarded as among the best all time, the 35-year-old Spaniard’s career is, however, almost tragically star-crossed. Alonso has jumped from manufacturer to manufacturer in fruitless search for a third world championship, while running mostly out of contention for the checkered flags for several seasons.

Amid his restlessness, his colleagues admire his boldness in deciding to chance the Indianapolis 500 (12:19 p.m., Sunday, ABC-TV).

“I do, yeah, I think it’s really, really great,” said Will Power, the 2014 IndyCar champ, who qualified ninth, on the outside of Row 3, while Alonso is fifth, in the middle of Row 2.

“I was surprised. I think it’s really good for the sport. And, hopefully, it adds more people to the sport.”

To climb out of a Formula One car to sit at the wheel of a different vehicle, for a different kind of racing — and competing at the fastest speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two decades — is audacious.

And so is Alonso, in a sport that rewards the intrepid.

Fernando Alonso, seen in a Formula One race earlier this month, will be navigating a much different track and vehicle this weekend.

Even some critical of the move perceive Alonso as returning racing to the days when great drivers, like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill and Jim Clark, crossed boundaries separating IndyCar and Formula One and NASCAR.

Racing the Indianapolis 500 is something the legendary, seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher flatly refused to do.

“First of all, I feel it is too dangerous from my point of view,” Schumacher said in 2001, according to the Telegraph, in the United Kingdom.

Alonso’s participation is so striking, so unexpected, that some IndyCar drivers are asked if he is overshadowing them, at a major event.

“I think it’s fantastic for the sport,” said Simon Pagenaud, the defending IndyCar champion, who leads the series again this season, for Team Penske. “It doesn’t matter if it overshadows anything, it’s great to have him on board.

“He’s doing a tremendous job this month.

“Obviously, he’s in the best car with the best package, right now,” Pagenaud said. “But he’s also doing what we would expect from a double world champion.”

Both Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR champion, and his teammate, Joey Logano, said they would be interested in racing the Indy 500. But the demands of their circuit, will not allow it.

Keselowski has been behind the wheel and tested and Indy car.

As for the switch, he said, it raises interesting possibilities.

“I think it’s really a question of ‘Who would have an advantage?’ ” he said.

“Is it a NASCAR driver because he or she would be comfortable running a high speed oval in traffic? Or would it be a Formula 1 driver who is used to the handling of an open wheel car, along with the different telemetry that you have available to you?

“I tend to think that a NASCAR driver would be more successful because of the experience on ovals,” the Rochester Hills native said. “I think you are able to adapt quicker to the car than you can the style of racing for 500 miles.”

Logano said it would be a challenge.

“To go from NASCAR to IndyCar, I’d have to deal with a massive increase in downforce, a new cockpit with a lot more driver adjustability features and learn how those impact the handling,” he said.

“Alonso is going from an F1 car to an IndyCar with a speedway aero kit, so he’s giving up some of the downforce he’s accustomed to and learning a new cockpit because in F1 all the adjustments are on the steering wheel.”

And then there is the matter of how differently a car slows from 230 miles per hour, as it skirts the famous wall at Indy.

“The IndyCars will brake differently,” Logano said, “and he’s racing on an oval for the first time in his career in one of the biggest races in the world.”

Power said Alonso already has accomplished much by not wrecking in practice or qualifying, this month.

“He didn’t want to have any sort of big scares for himself — because that is what happens on ovals, you have a big scare and you really, really ruin your confidence,” Power said.

“And it takes a while to get back.”

Practice and qualifying allowed Alonso to test his limits in clean air. Now, he will learn about driving an Indy car in traffic.

“Starting out, you are kind of wondering where the true limit is — which you don’t want to find,” said Power, of the dangers inherent in pushing just a bit too far, especially for a Formula One driver accustomed to room to escape off the side of the track.

Alonso made it through. Only the race is before him.

And he is a driver who need not be reminded of the significance of the occasion, or the thrill of victory.

Indianapolis 500

When: 11 a.m. Sunday

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway


Defending champion: Alexander Rossi