SPEEDWAY, IN – The month of May has been a joy ride for Fernando Alonso at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The two-time Formula 1 champion came to Indy having never turned left in a race car without also turning right. But he acquired such a feel for Indy's 2½-mile rectangle during a month of practice and qualifying that he's considered a strong contender to win the 101st Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, rookie or not.
"You're not trying to bring somebody on who has very little experience driving very high-performance cars," said 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil deFerran, who this month has helped Alonso learn the nuances that make the speedway such a tough place to conquer. "I suppose it would be a little bit different if you were dealing with a younger, much less experienced person."
Driving a McLaren Honda from the potent Andretti Autosport team, Alonso was consistently near the top of the speed charts in practice, he qualified fifth fastest at 231.300 mph, and he handled runs in heavy traffic like a driver who'd done it many times before.
But those were the prelims. The race is another creature.
"The car felt the best
(it has) in the last two weeks. I was making some moves, taking some different lines. I am extremely happy."
Other drivers say the speedway looks different on race day when the crowd, expected to top 300,000, fills the grandstands and makes an already narrow track seem even tighter. The three-wide rolling start is something Alonso has never experienced, and he will see the green flag from the middle of the second row between Takuma Sato and J.R. Hildebrand. And the space he'll be given by his competitors in the first 180 laps may disappear In the last 20 when it's every driver for themselves.
Can a rookie like Alonso win this race? Absolutely, as Andretti driver Alexander Rossi showed last year when his team used a fuel-mileage strategy to win in his first taste of Indy.
We're talking about Fernando Alonso here, who easily could show his rookie stripes to the rest of the field most of the day. His best lap in Friday's final practice, 226.608, was fifth fastest in the field and, more important, he said the car felt comfortable in heavy traffic.
"The car felt the best (it has) in the last two weeks," Alonso said. "I was making some moves, taking some different lines. I am extremely happy."
However, there's an uncommon sense of concern among the Honda-powered teams, which have shown supreme speed this month but also a rarely seen outbreak of unreliability. Fourteen of the fastest 17 qualifiers are powered by Honda – including Alonso -- with only the Chevy power of Ed Carpenter, J.R. Hildebrand and Will Power breaking up the Hondas in the first half of the field.
There have been eight Honda engine failures this month, including a big blowup by James Hinchcliffe's motor in Friday's practice.
"We've had some issues across the Honda camp," Hinchcliffe told NBCSN. "It's less than ideal."
Alonso's car needed an engine change before qualifying Sunday, which he joked wasn't a concern because he's accustomed to problems like that with his struggling McLaren Formula 1 team this year.
After Friday's practice, Alonso said he's not worried about race reliability.
"As long as it's in practice, it's OK," he said. "We need to make sure we learn and save the engines for the race. No concerns."
Helio Castroneves, attempting to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time winner of the 500, gave the Chevrolet camp a lift by recording the fastest lap Friday, 227.377. Hondas, however, occupied the next six spots.
SURROUNDED BY WINNERS
Alonso also will face considerable experience around him, with seven former winners in the field. Pole-sitter Scott Dixon (2008) and Rossi (2016) will start on the front row, Tony Kanaan (2013) in row 3 and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014) in row 4. Lurking further in the field are Team Penske drivers Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015) in the sixth row and Castroneves (2001, 2002 and 2009) in the seventh row. Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner, qualified about 9 mph slower than the pole-sitter and will start in the 10th row.
The weather forecast for Sunday calls for possible thunderstorms, which could force all kinds of strategy if teams see it may not run the distance. That's another battle Alonso may experience for the first time if the threat of a shortened race sparks a rash of bold moves as drivers push toward the front.
All that considered, can Alonso really win this thing? He has barely put a wheel out of place this month, but Indianapolis also is a finicky race track that changes by the lap, and a driver may not find the limit until he steps past it.
After a month of practice and qualifying, nobody has said he can't win. And Alonso himself has shown not only a joy at being here, but also a growing confidence as he became comfortable with a form of racing he had never experienced.
"I think at the end of the day, the big thing is the race itself, and the competition remains very similar (to Formula 1)," he said. "We are all here to race hard and to compete and try to be faster than any other guy out there."
Kirby Arnold worked 42 years as a sports editor and baseball beat writer at newspapers in Missouri and the Seattle area. He has covered motorsports extensively in his career, including 10 Indianapolis 500s.