Indy 500: Honda Ruins The Fernando Alonso Party

When Fernando Alonso decided to race in the Indy 500 this year, he singlehandedly bridged the yawning chasm that exists between IndyCar and Formula One. Previously, the relationship between the two sports could best be described as a festering wound.

Scott Dixon Indy 500 crash

Alonso Changes The Subject

Tony George built a road course inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so Formula One would have a place to call home in America, but the Europeans were never comfortable there. The drivers dissed the circuit, describing it as “Mickey Mouse.” Bernie Ecclestone called Indianapolis a “cow town.” As soon as the original contract expired, Formula walked away and never looked back.

Alonso changed all that. He created a level of excitement that ignite passion in all motor racing fans. During the broadcast, the announcers focused on Alonso and where he was in the field. Alonso was the featured story leading up to the race and during most of it, until his engine failed late in the race.

Honda Disappoints

Honda, it seems, has lost the plot. Its Formula One engine program is in shambles. Jenson Button, who took Alonso’s seat in the McLaren Honda at Monaco, qualified well but started from the pit lane, thanks to a 15 spot grid penalty after yet another blown Honda engine forced the team to change the power unit. At Indy, the #2 story all month leading up to race day was how many Honda engines failed in practice and in qualifying.

Alonso barely got to the starting line for the second day of qualifying after his Honda engine puked up its guts. The mechanics did a spectacular job of swapping in a fresh engine in just 90 minutes, but it was an ominous sign. During the race itself, three Honda powered race cars suffered engine failure, including former Indy 500 winners Ryan Hunter-Reay. The engine in the back of Alonso’s car went up in smoke near the end of the race when things were just starting to get interesting.

Manufacturers build race engines to burnish their reputation for power and reliability. That’s how motor racing began and it is no less true today. Honda, quite frankly, is now an international embarrassment. Its reputation, so carefully crafted over decades, is in danger of being destroyed. It should either figure out how to build engines that don’t turn into expensive junk or quit while it still has a shred of dignity left. Yes, Hachigō-san, we are talking to you. Honda is losing face around the world due to its failed race engine program. Time to step up or step away.

The Indy 500 Follows The Script

The race itself was predictable in that the eventual winner was unpredictable. Here is my personal take on the racing. I have not watched an Indy 500 race live in 30 years. The racing is too much like NASCAR for my tastes. Too many caution flags. Too many laps behind the pace car. The racing, when there is any, is fascinating, though — a chess game played at 220 miles per hour. Pit strategy is critical, as is the ability to restart successfully once the green flag waves. Alonso actually lead quite a few laps under green, but got shuffled backward during the multiple race restarts.

This year’s race had one scarifying moment. Polesitter Scott Dixon was collected by another car after it spun and went flying upside down and backwards into a barrier. It’s the kind of thing no racer could have walked away from alive just 10 years ago, but the incredible safety improvements made to the cars and the barriers around the track meant Dixon not only survived, he was walking around giving interviews just a 10 minutes later.

That is awesome news, but the broadcasters continued to replay the incident all throughout the rest of the race. Fans and sporting officials may claim no one wants to see wrecks during the racing, but whoever was in charge of replays obviously sees it differently. Advertisers apparently love them. NASCAR also focuses on wrecks, replaying them endlessly during the race and in promotions for upcoming events. Clearly, that’s what fans want to see, whether they are willing to admit it or not.

Sato Takes The Checkered Flag

In the end, Takuma Sato, a former Formula One driver whose nickname was “Crash,” forced his way to the front thanks to some forceful driving and luck. He became the first Japanese driver to win at Indianapolis. Last year’s winner, Alexander Rossi, drove in Formula One for a year before getting the boot from his team. Ex-F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya was in the field.

“I’ll Be Back.”

Alonso said after the race that he would definitely like to race at Indy again but denied he intends to switch to the series full time. “Obviously, if I come back here, at least I know how everything is. It will not be the first time I do restarts, pitstops, all these kinds of things. So it will be an easier, let’s say, adaptation. Let’s see what happens in the following years. I need to keep pursuing this challenge, because winning the Indy 500 is not completed.”

“I’m obviously disappointed not to finish the race because every race you compete, you want to be at the chequered flag,” he added. “Today it was not possible. It was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here to prove myself, to challenge myself. I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car, I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar. It was nice to have this competitive feeling, leading the Indy 500.”

“With a trouble-free race, Ryan [Hunter-Reay], Alexander [Rossi] and myself would be half a lap in front of everyone,” he said. “That is the nature of this race. Even with some unlucky moments of yellow flags, we were in the mix. I think I had a little bit in the pocket before the engine blew up.”

A Win For Race Fans Everywhere

It must have been a delight for Alonso to be in a competitive race car again after spending the last 2 years in the underpowered, unreliable McLaren. Now if he could just find a ride in a race car that isn’t powered by a Honda engine, his once illustrious career could get going again. One thing he showed by competing at Indianapolis, he still knows the fast way around a race track, no matter what car he is driving.

Fernando Alonso was definitely the number one story at this year’s Indy 500. His participation has sparked a resurgence in fan interest in open wheel racing not only in America but around the world. Along with all the other feats he has accomplished behind the wheel, he has become an international goodwill ambassador for motor sports.

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Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.