Can Alonso live up to past F1 champions' Indy 500 campaigns?

Can Alonso live up to past F1 champions' Indy 500 campaigns?
Apr 12, 2017, 2:19 PM

David Malsher looks at the history of Formula 1 World Champions competing in the Indianapolis 500, and asks whether Fernando Alonso can match the best of them.

Fernando Alonso, McLaren
Left-to-right: Piero Taruffi, 2nd position and Alberto Ascari, 1st position, on the podium
Juan Manuel Fangio
Colin Chapman and Jim Clark
Graham Hill
Graham Hill
Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti
Emerson Fittipaldi
Race winner Emerson Fittipaldi
Nigel Mansell
Nelson Piquet
Nigel Mansell
Nelson Piquet
Nigel Mansell
Jacques Villeneuve visits the F1 Racing stand
Jacques Villeneuve with Tony George
Michael Andretti, Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Race winner Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport Honda, logo

Ever since he settled down and chilled out in that camping chair beside the Interlagos track in 2015, Fernando Alonso has been photoshopped into hundreds of incongruous places – from ‘Where’s Waldo?’ illustrations, to the moon, to outside the Mercedes AMG headquarters in England. None that I saw had him seated in an IndyCar. Was that just too incongruous?

Well no, but it is unusual, and so the story of F1 World Champions competing in the Indianapolis 500 can be swiftly told.

The early pioneers

Alberto Ascari won every World Championship Grand Prix in 1952, but at Indy, officially part of the title race in those days, he drew a blank. He qualified 19th in Ferrari’s official entry, a ‘375 Special’, but its wire wheels apparently couldn’t handle the long lateral loads of the turns – the vicious vertical loads from the areas that were still brick probably didn’t help either – and sent the gorgeous scarlet machine careening off the track just before quarter distance.

Ascari’s greatest rival, five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio, was approaching his 47th birthday and rapidly winding down his F1 career when he decided to try his luck at Indy in ’58. However, when he couldn’t get up to speed in either of the cars he tried in practice, he quietly withdrew, never to try again.

Sir Jack Brabham, like Alonso, was a two-time F1 champ when he arrived at the Brickyard armed with a Cooper Climax, a can-do attitude and the talent to qualify 13th and finish in the top 10 in the nimble but underpowered mid (rear)-engined machine.

A couple years later, Jimmy Clark and Lotus showed up and finished second, and by the time the quiet Scot returned in ’64, it was as World Champion. The following year, Clark did what Alonso will have to do – skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in order to race at Indy. It paid off in every sense, since the Scot triumphed at the Speedway, then flew back to Europe to carry on kicking the backsides of his F1 competitors.

And so with a second title under his wheels, Clark returned to the Speedway in ’66 and while there’s evidence to suggest he won again, confusion at the time and foggy and uncorroborated memories since then will likely obscure the truth forever.

The record books show it was another F1 champ, Graham Hill, who conquered that day, after he and future World Champion Jackie Stewart were teamed together in John Mecom’s George Bignotti-built Lolas.

1967 World Champion Denny Hulme started four Indy 500s, ’67 through ’70, and his first two forays resulted in fourth places. Jochen Rindt’s two attempts at IMS came before his successful but fatal 1970 F1 championship campaign.

An increasingly rare phenomenon 

Into the ’70s, drivers became more specialized. One can only wonder what the fully polished but still brave and brilliant ’70s-era Jackie Stewart might have achieved at the Brickyard, a place he enjoyed, competing against drivers he openly admired. As it is, the ’66 race – which he led for 40 laps, and only lost when his engine failed nine laps from home – and ’67 race were the only times JYS competed at IMS.

The only F1 ace who flew back and forth across the Atlantic to qualify and then race in the Indy 500 during the 70s was its 1969 winner, Mario Andretti. He didn’t enter the year after he became F1 World Champion, but was back to have his heart broken in 1980, when his Penske PC9 looked a serious threat to Johnny Rutherford’s winning Chaparral 2K, until retiring with ignition failure. Similar gut punches would come his way in the 1981, ’82, ’87, ’ and ’93 editions of the race. He could have spared himself all that if only he had known that as well as fighting 32 rivals, he’d have to face the curse of the Andrettis at the Brickyard.

There was a Formula 1 champion who conquered the Brickyard over this period, however, a Brazilian ace who threw away the last five years of an F1 career that should have earned him twice as many wins and twice as many championships. Two titles and 14 wins are impressive, of course, but had Emerson Fittipaldi ignored the Copersucar project and instead stayed at McLaren or been wooed by Ferrari, he might now be up with Fangio or at least Prost in terms of titles won.

Having quit F1, however, Emmo found his in-car artistry and brainpower were ideal for becoming an accomplished oval driver, and he would end his Indy car career with two Indy 500 wins – 1989 and ’93 – the first, in a Penske run by Patrick Racing, was earned through aggression; the second, in a works Penske, was a result of him being a wily old wolf with perfect timing, defeating another F1 champ…

Mansell-mania takes over Indy

By the time Fittipaldi had made his Speedway debut in 1984, he had been retired from F1 for more than three years. When Nigel Mansell arrived in a Newman/Haas Racing Indy car in 1993, he was reigning F1 champion, and had the racing media in his pocket and tracking his every move. It was a huge deal, and by the time he arrived at the Speedway, the fourth round of the season, the novelty of his presence had worn off for neither the media nor the fans. Mansell had taken pole and victory in the season-opening race at Surfers Paradise in Australia, then deconstructed the perimeter wall and his own back muscles in Phoenix, then taken pole and third place at Long Beach.

At Indy he qualified eighth, led 34 laps and finished third, after misjudging the pace of the penultimate restart when Fittipaldi swept past, as did Arie Luyendyk eventually. But Mansell did claim a part in history, even aside from winning the Rookie of the Year award; 1993 marked the first time that the top three Indy finishers were all non-American.

The following year, Mansell did a sterling job, and while he had nothing for the Penske PC23B-Ilmor Mercedes, he would probably have finished second, had not a backmarker struck him while the field was running under caution.

Instead, it was Jacques Villeneuve who finished as runner-up that day. The following year, the Canadian won, and two years after that, he won the Formula 1 World Championship for Williams-Renault. In 2014, 20 years after his IMS debut, JV would return with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He was utterly competent, as one would expect, but more circumspect now he had less to prove, and with zero hoopla surrounding him. Eight years after his final F1 race, he was just a field filler.

Mansell's great F1 rival, three-time world champion Nelson Piquet ran out of decent F1 options for 1992 and committed to the Indy 500 with Menard's but during practice he hit debris and then the wall in a horribly violent accident that smashed his ankles. Yet he was back the following year, qualified, but retired with engine problems. 

Alonso has everything he needs

Alonso is a man still in his prime, whose talents have been largely wasted in recent years as Honda struggles with F1’s current engine regulations. In stark contrast, Honda is golden in IndyCar right now, having won the opening two races of the 2017 IndyCar season, and having achieved a small but notable edge over the Chevrolets on superspeedways.

And Alonso’s McLaren entry is being run by Andretti Autosport, the strongest team at Indy last year, the team that has won two of the last three Indy 500s. The Andretti curse may have struck Mario’s son Michael (and so far, grandson Marco, too) while he was a driver, but it has paid him back as a team owner.

Fernando Alonso’s presence would have caused a stir if he had simply visited Indy – or indeed, any IndyCar race – as a mere spectator. His plan to actually compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500, foregoing the Monaco GP as Clark and Chapman did more than half a century ago, is beyond amazing. And, there is no way Alonso is doing this just for the experience. He’s deadly serious about trying to claim motorsport’s Triple Crown of Monaco (which he claimed with Renault in 2006 and McLaren in ’07), the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Some choose to overlook the fact that an ex-F1 driver and IndyCar rookie, Alexander Rossi, could have won last year’s race on pace. The fact that instead he won it on fuel mileage and strategy, and was chased home by a then teammate, Carlos Munoz, doing it on balls-to-the-wall pace, gives a clear indication of just how much Michael Andretti’s team had its strategic options covered.

So while Alonso does have a lot to learn as a rookie at Indianapolis, and there are some lessons to be learned from the history of F1 World Champions at the Speedway, he's evidently learned the most crucial and most simple lesson of all: as far as is possible, he has eliminated the factors counting against him, and is therefore maximizing this rare opportunity. Alonso will arrive at Indy equipped with the best of everything.

Long renowned as “the most complete driver in Formula 1,” we’re about to see just how versatile Fernando Alonso is. 

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