Fernando Alonso knows his way around a race track. His nearly two decades worth of professional auto racing experience can attest to that much. His two Formula One world championships offer further proof.
But when Alonso races in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, he will find himself in an entirely new element. Alonso is making his debut in the Indy 500 after joining the Andretti Autosport team for the 101st edition of the race. It figures to be a sudden and dramatic gear shift for one of the world’s most legendary racers, whose experience on the road courses of Europe will not necessarily prepare him for the Indy 500 and its oval track.
After taking his rookie test on his first oval track earlier this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alonso has taken to the change quickly. Still, he said earlier this week it didn’t start to feel natural until last Wednesday, just a week and a half ahead of the Indy 500.
Alonso doesn’t shy away from the challenge he faces. He said adjusting to oval racing is a “big task,” and pointed to the need to adapt to the fact that cars in oval racing are asymmetric, listing to the left on their own.
“I came here with obviously some doubts about how competitive I could be,” Alonso said. But he also said qualifying fifth for the Indy 500 last weekend left him optimistic. That qualifying finish came despite an engine boost problem that slowed him down.
Alonso laughed off the engine problem this week. “It was a surprisingly good result,” Alonso said, “so, you know, you forget after five minutes.” But the stakes will be ramped up Sunday as Alonso tries to make an immediate mark on IndyCar racing. A Formula One champion has not won an Indy 500 in 22 years, and for Alonso to manage the feat would further burnish the Spaniard’s already sterling racing legacy.
Just a year ago, another Formula One racer and relative outsider won the race when Alexander Rossi, also with Andretti, pulled out a stunning victory. Alonso, who at 35 is 10 years older than Rossi, will look to follow in his footsteps, seamlessly transitioning from road racing to oval racing. (Rossi said Alonso was among his favorite racers growing up, and that getting to know him in the lead-up to this year’s Indy 500 has been a “special experience.”)
Alonso has turned some heads with the rate at which he has adjusted to his new racing surroundings. Dario Franchitti, who finished first at the Indy 500 three times during his racing career, told CNN this month that Alonso’s rookie test left him “amazed” at how quickly Alonso has picked up oval racing.
Vault: Indianapolis 500 through the years
Whether it will translate to a victory in the long and unpredictable Indy 500 remains to be seen.
Alonso said he will not enter Sunday’s race with a clear target, let alone the goal of capturing the magic that pushed Rossi to the finish line before many more experienced IndyCar racers in 2016. That, of course, hardly means he should be counted out Sunday.
“As a racing driver, you want to be in the best races in the world against the best drivers in the world,” Alonso said. “I’m not in my comfort zone here, because I’m racing against drivers that are the best on oval racing—the specialists in oval racing—so I have a lot to learn, a lot to improve. But at the same point, when you close the visor, you are a competitive person and you want to win.”