Ahead of the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing', experienced ESPN commentary duo Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear have had their say on the man everyone's talking about - Fernando Alonso.
Former F1 driver and IndyCar specialist Cheever feels the Spaniard, who will be driving #29 Chandon Honda for McLaren Honda Andretti in the 101st edition on Sunday, is one of the best drivers of all time - but says the challenge of IndyCar racing is as tough as it gets.
Alonso, who is set to make his rookie bow in Indianapolis, finished fifth in Friday's final practice - with three-time champion Helio Castroneves of Team Penske taking top spot.
Cheever, who will be one of the key experts calling the action from the ESPN Indianapolis Motor Speedway commentary box this weekend stateside, believes Alonso has created a new buzz around the sport.
But, he has warned the 35-year-old about the difficulties of racing in IndyCar's showpiece event.
Fernando Alonso has nothing to prove in racing but it’s his drive to accomplish more that makes the Spaniard one of the true greats of his generation.
It says something for the measure of the man, a two-time Formula One world champion, that he is prepared to take a step into the unknown and put everything on the line to compete in Sunday’s Indy 500 – the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’.
For drivers, it is the ultimate test – throttling speeds exceeding 235mph around the famous but extremely challenging Indianapolis Motor Speedway circuit. And get this; they’ll be 300,000 spectators at the venue as well as millions watching worldwide.
Will Alonso triumph? Who knows – but in truth – the F1 star, who skipped this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix to contest the midwestern state’s stellar race – has already won – even if he doesn’t cross the finish line first after completing 200 laps of the 2.5mile-long track.
For Americans to show so much interest in a non-American driver, a man who is taking a huge step out of his comfort zone, tells you something about Alonso’s stellar reputation in racing.
While Alonso, who will be competing for McLaren-branded Andretti Autosport, is very much the centre of attention in Indianapolis – the other drivers and teams aren’t fussed about the cameras not focusing on them.
Alonso may just stand at 5ft 5 inches – but he is a totemic presence here.
The McLaren star has injected a new lease of life into the sport and catapulted the buzz of Indy500 to new levels beyond the United States. The public stateside have taken him in, almost, as one of their own – they appreciate his commitment to a national treasure of a race.
Indeed, there can’t be too many occasions where this has happened before. Crossing sports for a second, David Beckham didn’t even come close to having the same impact on this side of the Atlantic.
Alonso is serious about this, it’s no marketing gimmick – his running in the 101st billing of the race was a long time in the making.
Fernando Alonso is the name on everyone’s lips and IndyCar should be grateful that he’s ready to conquer Indiana.
Whilst the threat of rain could cause havoc on Sunday’s race schedule in Indiana, the 35-year-old knows sitting in the IndyCar driving seat is the best place for him at the moment.
After a difficult season with McLaren, skipping Monaco has turned out to be a blessing in disguise and his Indy bow could well open the door to a full campaign next term in the format.
Cool and unflustered, he has dealt with the fanfare surrounding the switch very much in his stride. For a man who has been in the spotlight so long, he makes it look like it’s just another day at the office – but this race means so much more.
He will start eleventh on the grid and will be looking to follow Damon Hill in winning his first Indy 500 as a rookie after exchanging engine sizes from Formula One.
Perhaps, Alonso is targeting the clean sweep – an Indy 500 title and a future tilt at the esteemed Le Mans 24 Hour – a race he has made it widely known he admires.
Alonso would love to make it a hat-trick and add these two titles to his F1 gongs – only Hill has done that previously. As a keen scholar of the sport – the veteran is aware of the weight of history.
It’s an event which has helped him get the racing butterflies back and feel like he did as a youngster breaking into Formula One back in 2001.
The Indy outing won’t truly define Alonso’s career by any stretch, but a formidable drive will certainly capture the imagination of the many fans worldwide who are tuning in to follow his progress.
Formula One star Fernando Alonso has made a fast adjustment to IndyCars and driving around in circles as the Spaniard prepared for weekend qualifying at the 101st Indianapolis 500.
The 35-year-old McLaren racer, the F1 champion in 2005 and 2006, is skipping this year’s Monaco Grand Prix, a race he won twice, to compete on the famed 2.5-mile (4km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in the May 28 classic.
“The more laps I do, the better I feel,” Alonso said. “Have been good learning days for me. It’s still very new for many of the things that are happening out there, but every lap I feel better in the car, able to feel the setup changes a little bit.”
It doesn’t hurt that his Honda-powered entry is among six for Andretti Autosport, a lineup that includes defending Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi, his US compatriots Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Japan’s Takuma Sato.
“We are six drivers in our team with a lot of experience,” Alonso said. “We share. I keep learning also from them. On traffic, it was very good to organize these runs with the team. They take care of me. I felt that. So I will try to keep learning.”
Alonso surpassed 231 mph (371.7 km/hr) on Friday before rain arrived as the team tested aerodynamics for time trials after a focus on race setups during practices.
“It was definitely a new experience because you run at those speeds for the whole lap. It’s not one instance on the lap that you reach 220-230 mph like we do,” Alonso said.
“You feel the car, how it handles behind another car, how close you can be to the other car on the corners. But when you arrive to the race day, it’s going to be very different. There are not friends anymore.”
Alonso made it clear he’s not in Indianapolis to be a tourist and merely compete as a novelty act.
“I think this is probably the biggest race in the world,” he said. “To have the opportunity to experience this event is something that I think any racing driver should have the opportunity to feel. And, yeah, try to win it.”
France’s Simon Pagenaud leads the IndyCar season points race with 191, 10 ahead of New Zealand’s Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner and one of seven past champions in the 33-car field.
Brazil’s Helio Castroneves will try to match the all-time record of four Indy 500 triumphs, having taken the checkered flag in 2001, 2002 and 2009.
Other past champions entered include Americans Buddy Lazier (1996) and Hunter-Reay (2014), Brazil’s Tony Kanaan (2013), Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015).
France’s Sebastien Bourdais was the first to crack 233 mph in Friday’s practice with Hunter-Reay and Sato close behind.
Indy’s unique qualifying format requires all cars to complete a four-lap qualifying run Saturday with the quickest nine cars advancing into Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout, which decides pole position as well as the complete grid for the first three rows.
Cars 10-33 on Saturday’s speed chart will make the field but all times are erased and each car must make another four-lap run Sunday to determine the grid for the last eight rows.
Then comes Sunday’s pole showdown, with each of Saturday’s fast nine getting one chance at a four-lap run to take the pole, in order from slowest to fastest from their Saturday runs.