Sitting Down With Fernando Alonso, Gentleman Savior of IndyCar

Europe's unluckiest great racer still loves F1, but he wouldn't mind just a sip of Indy 500 milk.

2016 Formula One Driver Portraits
Mark Thompson—Getty Images

Fernando Alonso carries with him equal parts racing genius, poetic tragedy, and even a touch of melancholy. Like most drivers, Alonso is short of stature, with a muscular neck and intense focus. In person, sitting in a small office next to the World Trade Center in Manhattan, Alonso somehow looks older than his 35 years, with creased eyes and wild hair just starting to show a bit of gray. Of course, the McLaren-Honda Formula 1 driver is in impeccable shape after years old following a fitness and nutrition regime that gets more strict each year, as the F1 cars get more aggro, the g-loads higher, and his body just a little more worn down. 

This season—what is surely the most miserable year of his remarkably unlucky, and yet still utterly dazzling, career in F1Alonso is taking a break from a series of disastrous and embarrassing failures of the McLaren-Honda power unit (that's three DNFs in five races). He's even skipping the glitzy Monaco Grand Prix in favor of the down-home confines of Indianapolis 500, the largest race in the United States. 

Why? Because he wanted to do something fun.

It's been more than a decade since his dazzling back-to-back World Driver's Championship in 2005 and '06, and Alonso, a legendarily tough competitor and exacting teammate brilliance on track are matched only by Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, and perhaps the young and largely untested Max Verstappen. Alonso qualified surprisingly well at Indy, and will start the race in the top 10. Where he finishes is a roll of the dice.

Wearing a multi-branded sweater over a multi-branded polo shirt, Alonso takes a seat, sips from a bottle of water, and extends his hand: "I'm Fernando. How are you?"

Welcome to New York. Are you ready for this weekend?

I hope so. I think everyone is excited about this adventure. I know that in Europe, and in my home country of Spain, everyone is looking forward to this Sunday. Seriously good things could happen. My fingers, they are crossed.

When reinging Indy 500 champ Alexander Rossi came to IndyCar after spending time as a reserve driver in F1, he had some difficulty adapting to super-speedways and the IndyCar chassis, where most of the downforce is atop the car. He thought it was a handful to drive. 

It has been not easy, that is for sure. But it was a quick adaptation for me. The team also helped a lot. We have six drivers with Honda, and a lot of experience on ovals from there, so we share a lot of advice as well. It has not been easy because we went through many different stages—running with a lot of downforce, running in groups, then with less downforce, then you put the boost up for Fast Friday and qualification trim—which is crazy fast—and there is the wind factor and then the tire degradation. 

It is nearly impossible to repeat two laps in the same driving style and the same  feeling. So once you think you learn something it disappears in the next lap. Maybe the wind picked up or something. But I'm surprisingly competitive. I have nothing to complain about.

You seem to be having a lot of fun. I feel like this is the Fernando Alonso I watched 10 years ago. The one who is, you know, not frustrated as hell with his equipment. Are you relieved? 

Not really. Not until the race is over. I didn't expect to be competitive here. We made the announcement and I was thinking that maybe we go there and nothing feels right. Maybe the car makes me feel sick. Then I don't feel confident, and I don't enjoy the spirit of the race, and anything could happen. It's not like we started slowly, with a race called The 20 Miles of London, or something. We start with the 500 Miles of Indianapolis. That's no joke. It's a vicious race. We went from nothing to the biggest without even testing a car. It's a shoot of the dice.

Do you still consider Formula 1 to be the pinnacle of motorsports?

Yes. I think the Indy 500 stands out from the rest because the history behind the race, the names behind it, and it's a two week event. It's like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, another two week event. So there are races that have always been there in history, and they will be there forever. But as a series, as a championship, Formula 1 is the biggest. To have a small version of the Indy 500 or Le Mans every two weeks around the world, that is without equal. 

How long are you going to let McLaren-Honda torture you in F1? Is there a limit to your patience?

Well, in a way we work in an environment that is healthy and is happy. But we are not performing. And that's the biggest thing. And in motorsport that is the only thing. If you don't perform... poof! The motivation and the commitment—everything is right. What's missing is the power unit. It's just not delivering what we were expecting. 

So you're not going to follow Mark Webber to WEC?

Listen, I finish this contract with McLaren at the end of the year and I will have to make a decision. My intention is to stay in Formula 1. I've developed my skills around the F1 cars. I'd love to attempt different series, but just for my own growth, not really my career. You know? To come to IndyCar and race against the best oval drivers in the world. That's attractive. To go to endurance cars and race against the best there. To feel competitive there, that would make me pleased. but Formula 1 is my life.

Then again, I feel happy when I'm behind a steering wheel. Any steering wheel, really...

Oh yeah? Do you drive a Honda at home?

Yep.

Which is your preferred car?

Hmmm. I don't know. Probably the Accord. Or the Civic Type R. That's a nice one. I don't really have fancy cars. I have a collection of Formula 1 cars in my museum in Spain. But street cars, not so much. Just say the Accord.