View from ESPN commentary box: Alonso set for Indy 500 baptism of fire

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Scott Goodyear (far left) and Eddie Cheever (pictured left of Indy 500 trophy).

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.



He told Sport360: "The race will be full of surprises and Fernando's participation has just added to that, I think it will be one of the biggest sporting events of 2017.

"What Alonso can do in a racing car is beyond genius - there's certain drivers that are just capable of doing more than any other race car drivers. That pains me to say that as a former Formula One driver but over the years I've came to acknowledge that.

"Notwithstanding that, Fernando has no idea of what he's getting into. You cannot explain the Indy 500 race to anyone - I couldn't even explain it to my son (Eddie Cheever III) - even if I told him everything I've learnt over many Indy 500s," the 59-year-old said.

"There's the rolling start, the traffic at the beginning, there's the turbulence, there's running in the pack, there's a different change in conditions, there's full tank, there's low tank, there's coming into the pits under a yellow flag when 33 cars are trying to find their pits, it's leaving the pits at the same time and then if you get through all those stations and problems there is the last five laps.

"They are indescribable. It's like being in a tornado. Is it better to be second with three corners to go or first? Is it better to be fourth? What do you do? Everytime we've been in the television booth we've never really been able to call who's going to win the race."

Will Alonso deliver in Indianapolis?

Meanwhile, Cheever's ESPN commentary colleague, Scott Goodyear - the famed former IndyCar driver - says he admires the respect Alonso has shown the sport.

The 35-year-old star has certainly left no stone unturned ahead of the race and has been working meticulously with his team in Indiana to ensure his preparation has been as good as it possibly could have been.

"Watching him, listening to him and speaking to him, you understand how serious he is about this," Goodyear said.

"When he says he's watched 25 to 30 Indy 500s before he even got here you know that he's going to be a man that studies it and does everything he can to the best of his ability.

"His team Andretti put a purpose on being good at the Indy 500 and I think he's arrived here driving for the best team.

"With multiple drivers in the Honda team you have such an opportunity to learn so much from the other drivers, I think he's in one of the best places he could be at."

The action gets away on Sunday May 28 at 12.19pm local time (8.19pm in the UAE).

COMMENTATOR BIOGRAPHIES

Former Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever joined ESPN’s auto racing team in 2008 as an analyst for ESPN and ABC’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series. One of the most recognized names and faces in motorsports, Cheever won races all over the world in many different forms of race cars during his 30-year driving career.

The Arizona native made 132 starts in Formula One from 1978-89, the most by any American driver in the history of the sport. He returned to the United States in 1990 to pursue his dream of winning the Indy 500, racing in the former CART series and then in the IndyCar Series when it launched in 1996. He won the first race with the IndyCar Series’ new engine and chassis formula in 1997 and in 1998 won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver-owner.

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Behind the scenes: Sport360 in the ESPN production studios at Indy 500.

Former IndyCar standout Scott Goodyear has been the expert analyst on ESPN’s coverage of the IndyCar Series since 2002.

Goodyear, who last raced professionally in 2003, brings more than two decades of racing experience to the broadcast booth. He raced for four years in the IndyCar Series, winning three races and recording one top-five and two other top-10 finishes in the season point standings.

Prior to the formation of the IndyCar Series in 1996, Goodyear raced in the CART Indy Car Series, winning his first race in 1992 at Michigan International Speedway. That same year he was involved in the closest-ever Indianapolis 500 finish when he chased Al Unser Jr. to the line and finished second by just .043 second. He also finished second in 1997 to Arie Luyendyk.

Goodyear’s last of his 12 consecutive starts in the Indy 500 was in 2001 when he suffered a broken back in a crash on the eighth lap. After recovering from the injury, he decided to retire from Indy cars and join the ESPN team for 2002. He drove in some sports car races in 2003 when his TV schedule allowed and took a Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series victory at Watkins Glen International.

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Alonso creates unprecedented hype ahead of Indy 500 rookie bow

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Born to race: Alonso is ready for Indy 500 bow.

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.

Media day (part 2).... #indy500 #honda #mclaren #neversurrender #wearekimoa

A post shared by Fernando Alonso (@fernandoalo_oficial) on

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.

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Fernando Alonso.

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.

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