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Fernando Alonso and the Indy 500

May 19, 2017 In the News, Racing

Fernando Alonso and the Indy 500

Here’s Danny Sullivan’s take…

By John Lamm

Exciting stuff, the idea of Fernando Alonso forsaking the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Mind you, Formula 1-to-Indy isn’t new.

There hadn’t been a European winner of the 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920 & 1922 Jimmy Murphy when F1 champ Jimmy Clark put the Lotus 38-Ford in the winner’s circle in 1965. That opened the floodgates.

Gaston Chevrolet wins 1920 Indy 500.

Jim Clark wins the 1965 Indy 500.

Since then, such Grand Prix drivers as Graham Hill, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve, Eddie Cheever and Juan Pablo Montoya have won the 500. Tip of the hat too, to Alexander Rossi.

Never mind that Alonso’s GP ride, the McLaren-Honda, is a dog while his Andretti Autosport Dallara-Honda at Indy will be a greyhound. What matters is that the 35-year-old Spaniard will be one to watch in the year’s Indy classic.

To get an experienced eye on Alonso’s Indy attempt, we talked with Danny Sullivan. Not only did he race on the Tyrrell F1 team, but Sullivan’s spin-and-win in the 1985 Indianapolis is the highlight of many Indy highlight reels. He was also the 1988 CART PPG Indycar World Series winner.

He remembers other GP drivers who considered IndyCars. “I think it was Derek Warwick who used to come over because Milwaukee (the IndyCar race) was the weekend before the Montreal Grand Prix. Something was wrong with my car and I was in Turn One watching practice. Derek stressed, ‘I come over here every year to remind myself why I do not want to do this.’ The F1 driver added, ‘That is scary.’”

Sullivan continues, “I spoke to Alonso in Bahrain as I was the FIA F1 Drivers Steward there and the news broke as the weekend started.

“The biggest issue coming from road racing to Indy is that when a car starts to oversteer you can try a minute amount of correction. Opposite lock, as a road racer would normally do, will end up snapping the car and likely heading it to the wall nose first. NOT a good outcome.  This comes from the car being set up for the oval and banking by using different springs etc. on the right side.

“Then there’s the matter of knowing the styles and abilities of the other drivers,” Sullivan explains. “He doesn’t know anything about any of those other guys in the cars. He’ll recognize some of the cars, probably his teammates because he’ll run with them in practice. But he won’t know anything about that other driver up there driving that car.

“There are some guys that you’ll drive into a corner with and you don’t care if their wheel is inside of you. You know that more than likely nothing is going to happen. But there are other guys who don’t put you in that comfort zone.”

Then there is the size and aggressiveness of the Indy field. Sullivan: “There’s nothing he can relate that to because he’s not started in grids of that size, certainly in Formula One. Or the speed. If he’s on the inside of row two, for instance, it will probably be a pretty straightforward start for him. But he also needs to know not to be shocked if three guys come down the inside of him on the start. They can be pretty aggressive.”

Sullivan also points out something that seems to baffle GP fans. While F1 engineers worry about tenths of a second, the drivers have some ragged restarts with a second between them.

Not at Indy. “The first yellow restart will be interesting. Alonso is a very smart, talented guy and he’ll figure it out, but that first one, particularly if he’s up front…he could be passed by four cars going into Turn One. These guys could be all over him like a cheap suit.”

Does Alonso have a shot at the pole? Sullivan explains, “If I was him, I wouldn’t even be thinking of that. I’d be thinking, race, race, race. Set up, race mode, run traffic, what does the car do behind this car? Or behind that car? Is it different? Am I gonna have to change when I’m driving against a Chevy as opposed to a Honda because of power, because maybe it has more pull off the corner?”

Sullivan adds, “There’s also the matter of the wind…”the windsock, the flags. I mentioned it changes from one end of the track to the next. If the wind is going from north or northwest to southeast and you’re coming off two, it’s gonna push or pin the nose. In four it’ll be the opposite. Then the same in one and two, though one is a bit more insulated because of the grandstand.”

And the weather. “Lets hope that the weather this May gives him the appropriate amount of track time. You can get rain there for a long time.”

Then Sullivan brought up something that surprised us. A subject Steve Matchett, the commentator on NBC Sports F1, mentioned on a broadcast…again to our surprise.

Sullivan explained, “Alonso’s talent, as we have already seen, has no problem adapting to Indy.  But the nuances such as the public’s and media’s access to you as a driver is something new to Alonso coming from the very insulated world in the paddock/pits at a current F1 GP.  All the track issues with practice, warming up, fueling, pit stops, etc. are fairly easy to adapt to. However, the outside forces, access, yellow security shirts (fabulous but finicky), just things like going to take a restroom stop while the public is trying to get a picture and autograph, all the things that he is insulated from in F1…that can throw one off.”

So could Fernando Alonso win the 2017 Indianapolis 500? Danny Sullivan simply states, “Absolutely. He’s got the talent, Andretti’s got the team.”

To follow Fernando Alonso’s Indy progress–and all the IndyCar drivers–check out www.indycar.com or download the excellent Verizon IndyCar app for your smartphone or tablet. You can not only follow lapping cars, but also check out such things on each machine as speed, rpm, throttle opening, braking percentage and steering angle. Plus you can follow live TV action. Honest, no one at the office will notice…

Among the 115 cars in the Collier Collection at The Rev Institute in Naples are five significant machines raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1913 Peugeot-2980-cc four. A truly ground breaking car, the “Baby” Peugeot finished 2nd in the 1914 Indy 500 behind a Delage with twice the engine displacement.

1919 Ballot-4816-cc four. They were fast. One of the Ballot cars broke the lap record in qualifying (René Thomas at 104.7 mph), but two of the four team cars suffered broken wheels–including this one–and the other finished 4th and 10th.

1930 Duesenberg-168.7-cubic-inch supercharged four. Finished 2nd in 1931 500, just 43 seconds behind the winner. It was later converted into a sprint car.

1938 Maserati 8CTF-2991-cc supercharged straight-8. Brought to the U.S. by Lucy O’Reilly Schell. With the car came two famous men who became U.S. citizens: Rene Dreyfus and Luigi Chinetti. This chassis–3030–raced in several 500s and up Pikes Peak.

1974 All American Racers Jorgensen Eagle-161.5-cubic-inch turbo Offy four. Bobby Unser’s winning car from the 1975 Indianapolis 500.

Here is another video recapping the 1985 Indy 500.

*Images courtesy of McLaren

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John Lamm started his automotive journalism career in 1965 as a racing photographer for Autoweek magazine. After a tour in Vietnam, he joined Motor Trend in 1969, then Road & Track in 1975, where he worked for 37 years. He has also written for Car and Driver and Automobile magazines. Credits include 10 books and Lamm has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor awards for writing. Lamm’s photo archives include hundreds of thousands of images ranging from an 1893 Benz Victoria to many of the latest automobiles. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades. Lamm lives in San Clemente, California with his wife, Scheri.

4 Responses

  1. Rick (Rapid) Raducha

    Perhaps I’m wrong? But as a fan of Fernando Alonso since 2002, I believe he will look at the fan fanaticism as another wonderful part of the total challenge. Sure, it could alter his focus in a negative way – taking away time for the rest. But when that helmet is put on I don’t think he will have any thoughts in his mind but to go out and do his very best and enjoy the race. Thanks Rev Institute…hope to visit soon.

  2. Bill Hoff

    Oops, you left out the first American driver to win a GP – Jimmy Murphy. He won the ’21 French GP at LeMans in a Duesenberg and then the following year with the same chassis and a Miller 183 engine won the ’22 500. His riding mechanic for both events was the iron-willed Ernie Olson.

      • Bill Hoff

        Thanks for the quick reply. I’m restoring/recreating from what was left of the Miller 122 GP car that Jimmy Murphy drove in the ’23 Italian GP at Monza (third place) so him missing from the list caught my attention.
        I’ll be at the 500 this year and am looking forward to seeing how Alonso will do.

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