INDIANAPOLIS – His return didn’t have the fanfare of when he first arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017, then inclement weather and an electrical issue factored into what could have qualified as a frustrating Wednesday.
But Fernando Alonso – minus a throng of international media awaiting his every word – still sounded generally enthused about being back for an NTT IndyCar Series open test, despite losing early track time due to that electrical problem in the No 66 McLaren Chevrolet and then finishing slowest of nine drivers in the session set aside for veteran refreshers and rookie orientation.
“It's good to be back, to feel again the magic of the place,” the two-time Formula One champion from Spain said. “The facilities when you come in the morning, you see the size of everything again, doing the medical (exam) checks in the morning, preparing for the running in the afternoon. It felt good.
“Unfortunately, the weather was not stable enough to follow the times that we had in terms of practice. Yeah, at the end, it was not enough laps and not enough time on the car to get the proper feeling.”
Unlike two years ago, when Andretti Autosport prepared the car and supplied the crew for Alonso’s much-publicized Indianapolis 500 debut, McLaren is coming back on its own this time. Alonso and the team knew there would be growing pains early on.
His fastest lap of 29 was 218.690 mph, well off the pace of rookie Colton Herta, who led the session at 226.108 mph. Takuma Sato was fastest of the day in the earlier session for current veterans at 226.993 mph. Rain delays washed out the chance for extensive early runs, pushed the schedule into the early evening and prevented Alonso from completing both phases of his refresher test – something he’ll need to do when formal Indy 500 practice opens May 14.
“For us, obviously, we lost a little bit of time at the beginning,” Alonso said of the electrical issue. “This was more or less expected because, as I said, it was a brand new chassis, brand new car. Everything fit (in final car assembly) in the last week. We expect to run slowly, step by step, short runs at the beginning. It's what we did.
“So, yeah, if we could probably have the (initial) laps at midday, maybe you discover these issues, then you have hours to work on the car, be ready for the afternoon. The weather delays everything. You do the lap at 5:30 p.m., and there is no room to get back on track on time.”
Alonso picked up on Indy car racing quickly two years ago. He steadily improved in Indy 500 practice to emerge as one of the race favorites after qualifying fifth. He led 27 laps and was running near the front when his engine failed with 21 laps remaining. Alonso was named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.
“I'm happy to be back here because this place is great,” he said. “At the end, it's going to be amazing, you know, the two weeks here.”
His papaya orange car elicits memories from a rich McLaren history that included Indianapolis 500 victories in 1972, 1974 and 1976. The No. 66 is in honor of that first win with Mark Donohue in a Roger Penske entry.
Alonso is all about making history — his mission to conquer IMS is all about becoming just the second driver in motorsports to accomplish the Triple Crown of winning the Indy 500, Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans. Graham Hill currently stands alone in that distinction. Alonso won at Monaco in 2006 and 2007 and triumphed at Le Mans in 2018.
When asked if his previous experience made him feel like more of an Indy car driver, an amused Alonso insisted he’s still the same driver who showed up two years ago.
“Now I'm coming back as a Formula One world champion and 24 Hour Le Mans champ,” he said with a grin, quickly adding “and I’m 24 Hours Daytona,” referring to his win there in January.
Alonso tested an Indy car two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway and has spent extensive time in a Chevrolet racing simulator in Charlotte, but he conceded that preparing for the high-speed, 2.5-mile IMS oval is unlike anything he has experienced in racing.
That’s why track time is so important. He didn’t like losing some on Wednesday, but he’ll be back, determined as always, and looking forward to racing once again in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“I think we have to do everything by ourselves, not only in terms of setup-wise, on the technical side,” he said of his team. “It's also on the operational side, also on the strategy, tire management, the comfort side in terms of precision, steering wheel grip, basic things that they were ready with Andretti.
“Yeah, basically it's a bigger challenge. But it could be a bigger reward as well. I think some of the philosophy or directions that McLaren may go in the next month, maybe now is a little bit different. With Andretti, we just followed what we knew what was working. In a way, it was easier. But maybe now we can discover new things. That's our hopes.”
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge takes place Sunday, May 26. Tickets are available at IMS.com. The race airs live at 11 a.m. ET on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.