Excitement is building in the world of motor racing as Memorial Day approaches. That’s the weekend when both Monaco and Indianapolis will hold their annual races, both of which draw huge interest from the motorsports community. This year, Formula One driver and two time world champion Fernando Alonso is passing up the race in Monaco to drive in the Indy 500, a move that has excited fans of both sports.
Alonso’s Career Has Ups And Downs
Alonso, now 35, is approaching the age when staying at the top level of competition gets increasingly difficult. Long considered one of the world’s top racing drivers, his career has languished during the past decade as he repeatedly found himself driving for noncompetitive teams. Every Formula One driver dreams of racing for Ferrari but Alonso’s time came after the departure of Michael Schumacher and the brain trust of Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, and Jean Todt that made Ferrari the most dominant team in Formula One racing for many years.
Sebastien Vettel and Red Bull than surged to the forefront of the sport for four years before Mercedes took over as the team to beat starting in 2015. That’s the year Fernando decided to leave Ferrari and rejoin McLaren. It was also the year McLaren decided to renew its relationship with Honda, a move that has proved disastrous for McLaren, Honda, and Alonso.
“I love to race.”
This week, Fernando opened up about his expectations for the Indy 500 race and why he wants to drive there. “I love to race.” he says. “Like really, really race. And that’s why on May 28, on the biggest weekend in motor sports, I won’t be with my Formula 1 team at the Monaco Grand Prix. I’ll be in Indianapolis. Racing at the Brickyard. Because I need to be. The Indy 500 is one of the greatest events in the sport. Drivers all over the world know this. I belong there. Because I’m a racer. I always have been, and I always will be.”
That’s no exaggeration. Alonso started driving a go kart when he was three. By six, he was already an accomplished racer. Racing was his education and learning the tracks was his curriculum. His family didn’t have money for equipment upgrades. In fact, his kart had only one set of tires and they had to last for several seasons. One day, it rained. Young Fernando had never seen rain tires before.
“I raced on slicks in the rain — that’s all we had. But it wasn’t strange to me, because it’s all I knew. I had been driving on them for a couple of years, I knew what they could do. I had to be more cautious, more precise. I was only six years old, but I was adjusting on the fly. I took wider entries into corners so I could get the nose pointed straight and get back on the power quicker. I adapted, because I had to.
“I learned and I grew, and I loved it. As I took it more seriously, I also started to learn more about the tracks I was driving on. I enjoyed learning the specifics of a circuit — I wanted to know everything about every single turn before I even got in the kart.”
Alonso’s Favorite Race
Alonso remembers the Formula One race in Imola, Italy in 2005 as one of his favorite moments. His Renault powered race car had an engine problem before the start of the race that left it down on power. Deep into the race, he was in second position when race leader Kimi Raikonnen retired with a broken half shaft. Alonso was now leading but a very determined Michael Schumacher was closing up rapidly. At that time, seeing Schumacher in your mirrors filled most racing drivers with dread.
“With 12 laps to go and still in the lead, I went into the pits. When I got back on the track, I looked in my mirrors, and all I saw was bright red. Ferrari red. Michael Schumacher was pushing me hard. He had more power that day and … yeah, he was so fast. But I relied on my memories, on what I had learned. I knew the track. I knew the car. I adapted. I tried to keep him behind me at all costs. It was as much a mental battle as physical.
“Michael was diving at me every few corners, trying to get a young kid to make a mistake. But I didn’t. I held on for the win, and even now, that is maybe my favorite race I’ve ever driven. I remember it so fondly because my team and I overcame the odds from the morning and used all of our ability to get that win. It wasn’t like any other race I had really ever driven. It was totally new.”
The Indy 500 Will Be A New Experience
The Indy 500 will be totally new as well. Alonso offers readers his thoughts about the new venue. “It’s hard to miss the Monaco Grand Prix, but the tradition at Indy is tremendous as well. I keep hearing about it from everyone I speak with. I can’t wait for the pre-race ceremonies and the atmosphere. Here I am, a veteran driver, but it’s all brand new to me. The anthem, the circuit, the racing. I’m very thankful to experience it.
“Thanks to the simulator testing, I felt like I knew my car before I got in it last week at Indy. But once I did, there was one thing that nothing could have prepared me for: the raw, unfiltered feeling of power. Indy cars are a little more simple than the F1 cars, so it’s more pure. There’s less mechanical grip here, so the throttle has a bit more punch. It took a little time to get comfortable, but the team did a great job preparing me. My biggest takeaway from being behind the wheel was just sheer excitement. I can’t wait for May 28.”
As of May 19, Alonso has worked his way up to the fourth fastest time in practice. Interestingly, four of the top five drivers are either current or former Formula One drivers — Sebastien Bourdais, Takuma Sato, Alonso, and Juan Pablo Montoya. Bourdais, Sato, and Montoya all spent time in Formula One with varying degrees of success. Last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi, also spent a year in Formula One, pounding around at the back in a noncompetitive car.
F1 tends to look down its nose at American racing and its drivers. Indy car racing has seen some F1 legends switch to the west side of the Atlantic and thrive, Carlos Reuteman and Emerson Fittipaldi being two of them. If Formula One could ever lose its snobbish, cloistered world view, racing fans could see more cross pollenization between the two sports, which might lead to a true world driving championship involving drivers from both worlds.
For Fernando, Learning Never Ends
Expectations are high for Fernando Alonso this year but there are tricks of the trade in oval racing that he is not totally familiar with, like how to ride the high banked turns at The Brickyard and the tactics that come into play on the last lap of every Indy 500 race. Will Alonso win? That, of course, is what we all are waiting to find out. But come what may, he says it will be yet another lesson in a life long learning experience.
“I want to make something clear.” he writes. “I’m not coming for a ‘week off’ or to just have fun — I am a racer, I am coming to race. Above all, I hope this is an experience I can take with me for the rest of my life. I hope the feelings I feel, and the things I see, stay in my mind forever. And I hope that at the end of those 500 miles, I’ve learned something that I never knew before.” There’s a good chance he may educate some of the other drivers in the race at the same time.
Source: The Players Tribune Photo credit: Fernando Alonso