Fernando Alonso shrugged off searing temperatures to post the fastest rookie time during practice for the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday.
The Formula One star, who jetted into the United States less than 24 hours after finishing 12th in the Spanish Grand Prix, completed 36 laps on the famous oval at a best average speed of 221.63mph.
The former Formula One world champion admitted he had feared the blazing hot sunshine and temperatures around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) might be a problem before climbing into his McLaren-Honda-Andretti.
“I was a little bit concerned about the temperature, as it was much hotter today than at the test we did here on May 3rd,” Alonso said.
“But the car felt as good as it did at the test, and I was able to make some setup changes without losing the confidence in the car.”
Under Indy 500 rules, practice sessions and qualifying are governed by top average speed. The opening session is for rookies and returning drivers who have not raced in the event for a significant time.
Alonso’s top average speed was just faster than compatriot Oriol Servia, who had an average speed of 220.75mph and Ed Jones, who was third quickest with a time of 210.29mph.
Al Zubair, 19, will hit the track for the first time in the eight-race series which shadows part of the Formula One circuit on May 12, during the Spanish Grand Prix weekend. He has rapidly ascended to this point after he claimed both the GCC Rookie and Silver championship titles in his debut season competing for the 2016/17 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East.
Such auspicious displays convinced Walter Lechner, founder of Lechner Racing in 1975 and patriarch of the current Supercup champions, to bring the rising star under his umbrella as part of Lechner Racing Middle East.
Speaking to Sport360° in his hometown of Muscat, Al Zubair could not wait to get started in Barcelona.
He said: “Mentally and physically, I’m better than I’ve ever been. I’ve been running a lot, going to the gym a lot.
“We’ve tested in Barcelona and I’ve had the Porsche Middle East experience. I’m very, very excited to start racing.”
He added: “This is going to be a huge challenge for me and a big learning curve. It feels amazing to be on the right path to my dreams and I can’t wait for the first round to start.”
Al Zubair finished fifth in the overall Middle East standings, helped along by a maiden victory in the support race for the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix last month. He also ended up second and seventh at the Dubai Autodrome in January.
These results validated the decision to move away from single-seaters after a spell in British Formula Three. The Supercup will now see both his FZracing and native Oman gain wider exposure.
“This is definitely one of the most important days for my racing,” said Al Zubair, who is also completing his A-Level education in London.
“Basically, this is to set the targets for where my goals are when coming back to the Porsche Middle East next year – it sets the record straight.”
A huge step-up in class awaits in a competition from which a top-15 finish in the standings has been targeted. But Lechner believed Al Zubair has the raw talent to prevail.
He said: “Al Faisal is a perfect example of what the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East stands for.
“I’m excited to see how Al Faisal will perform but there is no doubt that this is going to be a very challenging experience for him.”
The hardest decision of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s life was the most sensible. As a stellar 18-year career in NASCAR began its journey to the final chequered flag following the 42-year-old’s revelation that he will quit at the end of the season, fans were gearing up to say their goodbyes to another legend.
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon – two celebrated drivers who often got the better of Earnhardt – have departed in recent years.
The remainder of this campaign, however, will be all about the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt whose Southern style rumbustiousness and swagger elevated stock car racing to the pinnacle of US sports during those wild days of yesteryear.
Yet while the Earnhardt name will always be synonymous with NASCAR, so too will be paying the ultimate price. In 2001, Dale was left mourning the death of his father, killed in a crash at the Daytona 500. He was just 49 years-old.
It was a horrific way to lose a parent and now he’s recently married and looking forward to starting a family, good health has trumped all.
“The timing is surprising ,” a well placed racing source told me. “Most people thought he’d end in 2018.” It was however on the cards. Earnhardt , who is now worth upwards of $300 million, missed the final 18 races of 2016 with concussion.
It wasn’t the first time either. Dizzy spells have only reinforced his desire to swap the car for a rocking chair and the good life.
Driver safety, as in F1, has improved but it wasn’t enough. Carl Edwards shocked the sport earlier this year by quitting. While Edwards’ stance surprised Nascar, this has caused far more aggressive shockwaves.
We are talking about the cool, social media savvy (he has two million Twitter followers), roundly loved and revered by the NASCAR devotees who voted him their favourite driver for the past 14 years despite the fact his best push for a championship ended with a third place finish in 2003.
“I wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said. “As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realisation that my driving career may have already ended without me so much as getting a vote at the table.
“Of course, in life we’re not promised a vote, and that’s especially true in racing. “But during my rehab, I was given something else I wasn’t accustomed to, and that was time.
“Time to understand what’s important to me, time to realise the incredible support system I have in my wife, my team and my doctors.
“And time to work like hell to wrestle back some semblance of say-so in this whole matter.” As noble and sensible as the decision is, losing another stellar name is a hammerblow for a sport fighting for its future.
Sport360° detailed earlier this month the drastic changes race bosses have implemented this season to ensure falling TV figures don’t begin to sap NASCAR of relevance in what is supremely saturated US sporting market.
Yet arguably the most precious commodity in any sport is star names who bring punters to the race track and customers scurrying to merchandise stores.
Of course, the future doesn’t rest solely on Earnhardt’s weary, battered shoulders. His departure elevates the need for an exciting bunch of youngsters coming through.
This is the chance for the likes of Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin and Ty Dillion, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones to prove their worth.
NASCAR will undoubtedly be poorer without Earnhardt yet his parting gift could be invaluable. In such a macho, high octane environment, few speak freely and honestly of the dangers which present themselves every race day.
For the sake of everyone involved, and thanks to Earnhardt, let’s hope the times are changing.