Weekend Debate: Could Fernando Alonso and Formula 1 emerge as winners from the Indy 500?
Fernando Alonso is three weeks away from competing in the Indianapolis 500 in lieu of the Monaco Grand Prix and the consequences for Alonso, McLare...
Fernando Alonso is three weeks away from competing in the Indianapolis 500 in lieu of the Monaco Grand Prix and the consequences for Alonso, McLaren and F1 itself of the two-time world champion's move are becoming more apparent as we get closer to the race on May 28.
At an event at McLaren's headquarters in Woking, Surrey, McLaren CEO Zak Brown, IndyCar parent company CEO Mark Miles, three-time Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti and current IndyCar driver Max Chilton spoke to JA on F1 about the challenges which await the Spaniard.
What are the physical and mental challenges?
With F1's new rule changes in 2017 requiring more of drivers in terms of strength, Alonso should easily be able to cope with the physical hurdles. He's already tested at the circuit, comfortably reaching nearly 223 mph. He'll hit speeds of more than 230 mph on race day, higher than those in F1.
According to Chilton, who drives for rival team Chip Ganassi Racing this year, "Your heart rate is higher in IndyCar because you are mentally drained and exhausted from concentrating. I would say physically they are pretty similar but you need to be physically stronger in IndyCar because you don’t have power steering. I think there are certain races because of the heat in Formula 1 where you need to [have] more cardiovascular [fitness].
Franchitti ran 151 races over his 11-year IndyCar career which ended in 2013, also briefly having tested for Jaguar F1 in 2000. "I would say Indianapolis is not a physical race that requires a lot of strength, it’s about the subtleties," he said.
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton hit a peak G-force of 6.5G in the opening Australian Grand Prix through Turn 1. Indianapolis puts forces of around 4G on drivers through but for a longer period of time. So while Alonso might have the strength to race, it's the "mental discipline" that Franchitti said Alonso needs as a rookie at Indianapolis.
"You cannot lose concentration for a fraction of a second in the race or it goes wrong in a hurry. He’s one of the greatest drivers of the generation but this is not about talent, it’s going to be about experience and getting as much of that experience as he can," continued Franchitti.
A "win-win-win" situation for all?
Miles, CEO of IndyCar parent Hulman and Company, said "We genuinely believe this is a win-win-win. It’s great for Fernando - you can see him refresh and emotionally it will be great for him. His stock in the States and his recognition is up, as is Formula 1's.
"Everyone’s heard of Formula 1 but we only have one race at the moment and I’m sure they’re trying as much as Alonso is in many respects so [F1] will take advantage of that," continued Miles.
When asked about further collaborations with F1 in the same vein, he said "We are certainly open to that. We have not had those conversations but we have a lot of respect for the new ownership of Formula 1".
McLaren Executive Director, Brown, agreed, "So far everything’s gone unbelievably smoothly at the tests and it’s credit [due] to all three organisations that have come together, how excited everyone is, just how seamless everything has gone.
"We’ve had four weeks of preparation. I think what IndyCar did with the test was awesome and it is the power of digital social media - I think other series can learn from what IndyCar did there."
The IndyCar live-stream of Alonso's test garnered more than two million views this week in all. While IndyCar's profile has jumped in Europe, F1 has a long way to go if the motorsport genre is to emulate that success in the US. According to IndyCar, its TV viewership has grown 55% from 2013, while F1's figures are almost stagnant at a 1% increase.
With McLaren languishing at the back this season, Brown said, "We are of course frustrated, as is Honda, with how things are going. it’s not going to be a quick fix - I don’t think we can expect much progress over the year - but it is important to remind the world that we are committed to each other as we are getting a lot of questions about it.
"We felt this was a good way to demonstrate that McLaren-Honda were committed to each other, committed to winning and it’s great that Honda has such a competitive platform in IndyCar so I think it helps show that we are united.
Worth the risk?
Nelson Piquet broke his legs, Nigel Mansell suffered a serious back injury on an oval and more recently IndyCar has had two fatalities in the last decade as British drivers Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson passed away in 2011 and 2016, respectively. For Alonso, there is certainly risk, but McLaren is taking a gamble by letting their most experienced driver attempt the Indy 500. Rival team boss Christian Horner said Brown should see a psychiatrist..
Brown, however, defended the team's decision: "Motor racing is a dangerous sport, Fernando has been injured twice in our Formula One car and I think the Indianapolis Speedway has been a very safe place with a couple of decades now since its last incident.
"Fernando is extremely prepared, the car is exceptional, he’s going to have a good amount of testing. I think any time a driver gets in a race car there’s a certain amount of risk but Fernando is as prepared as possible and I don’t think there’s any more or less risk in any of these forms of motorsport.
"If you don’t want to take risks then you probably shouldn’t be in motorsport. You take as much preparation as you can and we are very comfortable with our decision."
"He’s a racing driver and the fact that he wants to do the Triple Crown, I applaud that," agreed Franchitti. "The margin for error is tiny but for somebody like Fernando he's going to see that as a challenge - it will definitely heighten the senses when he gets out there - I see that only as positive," said the former champion.
Room for error?
Chilton crashed during practice for the 2016 Indy 500, having just finished a lap at 228 mph, as he spun through a corner nose-first into the outside wall of Turn 2. Oversteer in F1 is corrected by turning away from the direction of the slide, whereas in IndyCar that is a much more difficult proposition.
There is much less room for error compared to F1 with no run-off on the outside wall and a pack of 32 other cars beside you.
"If you have that level of experience you can slide the back round the corner a little bit. If you are going to run it right on that ragged edge you have to catch it very quickly within the first two or three degree and if you don’t that’s when you’ve got to try and correct it and that can send you right," said Franchitti.
Furthermore, Alonso will have a spotter in his ear at all times, telling him where his opponents are to avoid collisions and help him overtake.
"Basically the spotter is helping you understand what is going on in your blind spots. I don’t think it will be a problem - it will be something new to understand but I think he will pick it up very, very quickly. The spotter sometimes say ‘you’re clear by five’ and you look in the mirror and think ‘five what?’," according to Franchitti.
Could Alonso take victory?
Right now, the McLaren driver hasn't finished a single race this year owing to reliability problems. However, with identical machines in IndyCar running either a Honda or Chevrolet power unit, he stands as much a chance of finishing at Indianapolis as his opponents. Moreover, his team, Andretti Autosport, took victory in last year's Indy 500 with rookie driver Alexander Rossi at the wheel and he will have team boss Michael Andretti himself doing his race strategy.
"It will be difficult. Nobody is under any misapprehension here, this is going to be tough. Can he do it? Absolutely," said Franchitti.
"But again it’s the experience, that will be the tough thing and if it comes down to a caution with 20, 25 laps to go and he pits to put on new tyres that’s when all bets are off.
"There’s 20-something drivers who realistically can be competitive enough to win that race on pace, never mind strategy or any of that stuff...whereas in F1 you've got what you’ve got because of the latest developments and you don’t have much tweaking going on. This is constantly polishing off to make sure that it’s the best car for you," he said.
F1 world champions have gone on to win the Indy 500: Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi. Juan Pablo Montoya is another ex F1 driver who has won it twice and Rossi won it last year after being an F1 stand-in. Alonso will certainly be the highest quality driver in the field, albeit lacking experience in oval racing.
There are a growing number of people who say that Alonso has a very real chance of joining the exclusive group and completing the second leg of his quest to win F1's legendary Triple Crown: Monaco GP, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24hrs.JA on F1 Facebook page.
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