Fernando Alonso enjoys “competitive feeling” despite early exit in Indy 500

Doug Mathews/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Fernando Alonso didn’t reach the destination he intended, but the journey was everything he could’ve hope for.

The announcement seemed like a dream – or perhaps a delayed April Fool’s joke – when it rolled out to the media shortly before 7 a.m. ET on a cool spring morning in April.

Alonso, a two-time Formula One World Champion considered among the best active drivers in all of open wheel, would forego the Monaco Grand Prix to compete in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 in a McLaren Honda Andretti entry.

The news hit the motorsports world like a left hook. Alonso had no experience in an indy car, let alone on an oval like the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yet there he stood at the Yard of Bricks on May 3, strapping into a papaya orange No. 29 Honda for a test session.

The rest of the Month of May proceeded like a whirlwind, with Alonso delivering ever-impressive results. The Spaniard kept his machine off the wall, completed hundreds of laps and methodically moved up the speed charts in the two weeks leading up to the 500-mile race, making the Fast Nine on qualifying weekend and earning the fifth starting position.

All of the early success yielded obvious questions going into Sunday’s race. Did Alonso just have a good car, or had he truly picked up on oval racing that quickly? Could the F1 ace truly arrive at ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ and contend immediately for a victory?

From the moment the green-flag flew, the answer to the final question proved to be an undoubtable yes.

After fading back to ninth on the race’s start, Alonso quickly joined the fold at the front of the field, leading 27 of the day’s 200 laps. The 35-year-old remained in the top 10 for the majority of the event, and appeared poised to ride into the top five when his motor expired on Lap 179.

That would prove the end of the day for Alonso. His machine rolled to a halt in the infield grass at the entrance to Turn 1. Unsure if the Spaniard will ever return, the 300,000 fans at IMS erupted in cheer, offering one final salute to a man that brought a new international audience to America’s greatest race while somehow becoming a local icon.

Fernando Alonso factored into the battle for the win until his motor expired on Lap 179. (Photo: Jim Haines/INDYCAR)

The end result – a 24th-place finish – far from reflected Alonso’s performance, but in the end it didn’t matter. By the time the F1 vet fell out of the running, he had already proven his talent.

“Obviously disappointed not to finish the race because obviously every race you compete, you want to be at the checkered flag,” Alonso said. “Today was not possible. Anyway, was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here basically 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, even leading the Indy 500. One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the (No.) 29 on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if Zak or someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home.

“Thanks to IndyCar, amazing experience,”  Alonso continued. “Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

McLaren executive director Zak Brown offered high praise for his driver’s performance after the race.

“If we put aside the last 20 laps, which is a massive disappointment, if we reflect back on the past month, it was outstanding,” Brown said. “Fernando didn’t put a wheel wrong. Showed what a world class world champion he is today.”

Result aside, it was Alonso’s bravery that impressed Brown the most.

“When Fernando an I first spoke out about the Indianapolis 500, I wasn’t sure what Fernando’s response would be because I think not many race car drivers in this world are brave enough to do what Fernando just did,” Brown said. “Not just from a physical standpoint, but the whole world was watching Fernando race today. He put himself out there and exposes himself, delivered the goods, which isn’t a surprise to anyone that has watched Fernando race.

“So I was pleased, very pleased, that competing at the Indy 500 was his dream. It’s been a part of McLaren’s history, and a dream to win Indy 500s in the future.”

Indianapolis run complete, Alonso next returns to the F1 paddock for the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix with McLaren. There’s a chance he’ll be met with scrutiny from the paddock after skipping Monaco, but the 35-year-old remains confident in his decision based on the excitement of Indianapolis.

“I think for motorsport in general, people that watched the race this morning in Monaco, the people that watch the race this afternoon here, I think they could not sit down for three hours this afternoon,”Alonso said.

In the end, Alonso took time to toast the media after two weeks of relentless coverage, jokingly indulging in a bit of milk despite not managing a win.

Will IndyCar ever see Alonso back for another Indy 500? It’s difficult to tell, but the Spaniard refuses to rule it out.

“Let’s see what happens in the following years,” Alonso said. “I need to keep pursuing this challenge because winning the Indy 500 is not completed.”

Either way, for two weeks Spain’s Alonso delivered Central Indiana memories that the area won’t soon forget. The McLaren Honda Andretti entry will live on in IndyCar lore for years to come.

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