Do Indystar.com: "Doyel: Fernando Alonso won everything but the race"
INDIANAPOLIS – For two weeks, we followed him with cameras and microphones. If Fernando Alonso said something, we heard it. If he did something, we saw it. He couldn’t hide from us. We wouldn’t let him.
But somehow, he hid this.
Alonso was talking with the media after the 2017 Indianapolis 500, going over his terribly misleading 24th place finish, when he announced there was one more thing he needed to do, one more thing he wanted to say.
Alonso reached beneath the table and pulled out a surprise: a small blue carton of milk. The Indy 500 champion drinks the milk — out on the track, shocking winner Takuma Sato already had chugged from a container of milk before dumping the rest on his head — but not normally the guy in 24th place. But then, nothing about Fernando Alonso is normal. And so he pulled out a half pint of 2-percent milk while the room broke into laughter.
“Last thing,” Alonso said. “Thank you for all media. I didn't won, but I will drink a little bit of milk. You follow me for two weeks every single minute, but I really enjoy. Thanks for the welcoming.”
That isn’t why Alonso is a star. He’s a star because he’s a damn good race car driver, a two-time Formula One champion who made his oval debut on Sunday and grabbed the lead on four different occasions, leading for 27 total laps before his engine blew on Lap 180.
But that is why he’s so popular. They are two different things, talent and personality, and Alonso has a world-class helping of both. Earlier in the week feisty American driver Graham Rahal was spitting fire about Alonso, saying that he and other drivers in the paddock didn’t want the outsider from Formula One to win, but Rahal couldn’t help himself. He softened.
“I hope he comes back,” Rahal was telling me.
People seem to like the guy, I said.
“For sure,” Rahal said.
Why do people like Alonso? Here’s a story:
Before Alexander Rossi became the biggest somebody in U.S. racing, before he won the 2016 Indy 500, Rossi was a small little nobody in Formula One. He couldn’t get a full-time ride on that circuit, just some starts here and there. His first start came at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix. Before the race, one driver — one — approached the 23-year-old Rossi and told him to enjoy the experience.
Look, this is not a children’s story. It’s wonderful that Fernando Alonso is so charming as a man — it really is — but what mattered most Sunday was his charisma behind the wheel. And my word, does he have charisma behind the wheel. With some luck he would have won the 101st Indy 500, but Alonso was driving one of the lemon engines Honda foisted on its drivers this month. Nine Honda engines blew here at IMS this May, including those on two potential winners Sunday: Ryan Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso.
Alonso’s engine blew on Lap 180, his engine belching gray smoke as he coasted to a stop. But before that whimpering finish, Alonso was roaring his way around the track, racing his car like another famous Spaniard sportsman, Seve Ballesteros, once played golf. Ballesteros was creative and fearless, but let’s be honest: Ballesteros was hitting a golf ball.
Alonso was driving 220-plus mph during the first oval race of his life. He was going five wide at one point, and on Lap 176 he made a move that had veteran racing writers gasping in the IMS media room.
It started with a simple pass, Alonso going high to overtake Tony Kanaan for sixth, but he got around Kanaan so fast that JR Hildebrand was in range and Alonso decided: "Hell with it." He went after Hildebrand too, engaging him in a game of chicken before deciding to back off.
This was Alonso getting comfortable, getting bold. When the race began his unfamiliarity with IndyCar was apparent, including this remarkable development: Alonso qualified fifth but entered the first turn in sixth, being overtaken immediately by Hildebrand. By Lap 2, Alonso was in ninth, because he didn’t know what he was doing.
Early in the race Alonso lost position on almost every restart, but the racing savant figured it out. After running most of the day in the top five, he dropped back a few places entering the final 40 laps. But that was intentional.
“I was taking care a bit of the front tires,” he said, “because I knew the race would be decided in the last six or seven laps.”
Alas, he wasn’t there. After his engine blew, as Fernando Alonso’s orange No. 29 Andretti Autosport entry coasted to a stop, the crowd at IMS gave him a standing ovation. He had won them over, just as he already had won over the drivers, the same ones who didn’t want him to win.
After it was over Alonso said: “Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I’m not an American, but I felt really proud to race here.” He also told us that the first time he passed the tower “and saw the 29 on top of it, I was (hoping) someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home.’”
Then he was sipping his milk, speaking in delightful broken English — I didn't won, but I will drink a little bit of milk — and walking off the podium and through a door and directly into Helio Castroneves’ physical space. Castroneves, who finished second after being unable to pass Sato on the 198th lap, was waiting solemnly for his news conference. The three-time winner broke into a smile when he saw Alonso coming, patting Alonso on the chest and saying a single word:
Then Alonso was gone, climbing into a golf cart and being driven back to the garage. No longer in his fire suit, wearing a baseball cap and large sunglasses, Alonso rode anonymously through the crowd. An hour earlier, he was trending worldwide on Twitter. Now he was just another guy on an IMS golf cart, unrecognized as he rode through the crowd until a single fan walking past did a double-take, then yelled something loud enough for everyone in Alonso’s golf cart to hear:
“Come back soon, Fernando!”