INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso was in the field. Then he was out. Then in, then out, then in again and finally out.
And that was all in the final 90 minutes of first-day qualifying Saturday for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
The two-time Formula One champion failed to make it into the top 30 starting positions for the May 26 race and will be forced to battle with five other drivers Sunday for the final three positions.
“We didn’t have the speed, so we are where we deserve (to be) today,” Alonso said honestly. “I hope tomorrow we have another chance to be in the race. If we can’t make it, we can’t make it, and it’s because we don’t deserve it.”
Alonso twice attempted to qualify earlier in Saturday’s 6-hour, 50-minute session. One attempt was thwarted by a small puncture in the right rear tire of the No. 66 McLaren Racing Chevrolet. The team then waited until 4:18 p.m. ET to go again, when Alonso recorded a four-lap average of 227.000, good for the 30th position. The fastest 30 drivers at the end of the day were guaranteed a spot in the race.
The team withdrew that effort to return to the qualifying line. Alonso got back on track again at 4:44 p.m., but only managed a 224.414 mph average. At 5:18, Ben Hanley knocked Patricio O’Ward out of the top 30, and minutes later Alonso returned to the track.
At the time, Alonso asked McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran over the radio, “Why are we doing this?”
But this time, a four-lap average of 227.224 mph – his best run of the day – was good enough for 29th place and – for a moment, anyway – a place in the race. “We’re in,” de Ferran told Alonso over the radio, “for now.”
But 26 minutes still remained in the session, and conditions were improving for several drivers who showed speed earlier in the day. At 5:25, Felix Rosenqvist made it into the field, bumping JR Hildebrand and dropping Alonso to the 30th position.
Then, at 5:36 p.m., James Hinchcliffe, who had crashed earlier in qualifying, failed to break the top 30 with a four-lap average of 226.956 mph in his backup car. With just 14 minutes remaining in the session, Alonso appeared safe.
Sage Karam’s four-lap average of 227.156 mph couldn’t break the top 30, but Hildebrand, Karam’s Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammate, went 227.908 mph to knock Alonso out – temporarily. With just three minutes left before the gun signaling the end of qualifying for the day, Graham Rahal withdrew his previous speed to attempt to improve his spot on the grid, briefly putting Alonso back in the 30th position.
When Rahal went 228.104 mph to secure the 17th position on the grid, Alonso was officially out of the top 30 and headed to Sunday’s battle for the final row. Quite the change for the driver who, in his first Indy 500 two years ago in a car prepared by Andretti Autosport, qualified an impressive fifth. Not this time.
“It was a difficult day,” Alonso said. “It was a difficult week in general, but a difficult day today. In the morning, the conditions weren’t too bad. We thought we could have a great (speed) number, but things were moving quickly. We went out at 1 p.m. and had a puncture at that time. We waited to go out later when the conditions were cooler, and they were, so we took a chance and tried to improve. But it wasn’t enough.”
The last-row qualifying session, which will eliminate three cars from the race, is scheduled to begin Sunday at 12:15 p.m. ET. NBC’s coverage will begin at noon. Aside from Alonso, Hinchcliffe, Karam and O’Ward, the session will include Max Chilton and Kyle Kaiser.
“We need to stay calm,” Alonso said. “It’s a different moment for everyone on the team and for me, but there’s not much we can do now. … The speed we have is not enough to be in the top 30. We will try to do something overnight, but there is not much we can find from one day to the next. Hopefully it’s enough to get into the top three positions of the six.”
The Fast Nine Shootout will determine the starting order for the first three rows of the race and is scheduled to start at 1:15 p.m. on NBC. Spencer Pigot had the fastest four-lap average of the day – 230.083 mph in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Two other ECR drivers – Ed Carpenter and Ed Jones – will be in the shootout, along with three Team Penske drivers – Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden.
Colton Herta, the fastest Honda-powered driver in Sunday’s session, will join the fray, along with Alexander Rossi and Sebastien Bourdais.
Rain is forecast Sunday. INDYCAR officials reiterated Saturday that the last-row competition with take priority over the Fast Nine Shootout. If the entire session is rained out Sunday, the top nine will start the race as they stood after Saturday’s session, with Pigot on the pole. The last-row competition, however, will be held on the next dry day.
So for Alonso, the attempt to get into the Indianapolis 500 for a second time will last at least one more day, an unexpected development for himself and McLaren. Alonso crashed during Wednesday’s practice session, didn’t get on track Thursday as the team prepared a backup car and finally returned Friday with slower practice speeds than he and the team expected.
“We were not very competitive the whole week,” Alonso admitted. “It has been difficult for us, but small issues do not help. We did the maximum we could do. Unfortunately, it seems we were not super perfect.”