Fernando Alonso's Indy Performance Is Exceeding All Expectations
Last year’s Indy 500—the 100th running of the iconic event—was huge in every way, but its hook was of the general kind, the number 100. The centennial celebration drew immense attention; fans flocked to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to be part of the big number 100, and yet, until the drama unfolded late in the race as rookie Alexander Rossi scored a major upset, the two-week contest lacked a specific rallying point within the field of 33 drivers. Beyond the 100 angle, what else was on offer?
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 Andretti-McLaren Honda driver has garnered most of the attention since practice began on May 15 (that was, of course, until polesitter Scott Dixon and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint Sunday night while ordering Taco Bell from the drive-through window), and based solely on driving merit, it has been deserved.
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.
He's been flawless so far, and that could change once he’s surrounded by 32 drivers charging into Turn 1 when the green flag waves. They all want to beat him—to defend their territory and add some shine to their careers—which is what you’d expect from a fiercely competitive field.
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.BY MARSHALL PRUETT
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