Fernando Alonso on Proving Himself at the Indy 500, This Time Without Fans
He’ll miss the roar of the fans on race day, but not fighting the crowds on his way to the bathroom.
It might look like the 2020 Indy 500 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons: no Memorial Day racing, no fans, no Bump Day, less prize money for the teams and drivers, and no women drivers for the first time in two decades. But it's not all doom and gloom. It's wonderful that America's greatest race is even happening at all. And one man who's also happy about this is Fernando Alonso, whose luck at the famous oval has been—let's just say, less than stellar.
I recently had the chance to sit down with the man himself—and by sitting down, I mean he was sitting in a race hauler and I was sitting in my dining room—and he shared his thoughts on the thousands of missing fans and what the future holds for him.
The two-time Formula 1 champion had his first shot at the famed 500-mile race in 2017 through a partnership between McLaren and Andretti Autosport, but the Spaniard's dreams of clinching motor racing's triple crown went up in flames when his Honda engine went kaput mid-race. That being said, the double Le Mans winner and lawn chair connoisseur managed to lead 27 laps and develop enough feelings toward the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to request a rain-check.
Two years later he came back for a do-over, but his 2019 attempt did not go as planned. In fact, it went horribly wrong, with Alonso getting eliminated in knock-out qualifying by a rookie driving a race car that was basically put together last-minute with borrowed parts. He never even made it to Sunday, let alone the green flag.
2020 brings yet another chance for a man who's easily one of motorsport's biggest names, and one who is actually heading back to F1 next year, to redeem himself. After trotting around the globe racing everything from endurance prototypes to Toyota pickup trucks, Alonso will join the Renault F1 team once again as a full-time driver in 2021.
Before that happens, he must first (hopefully) complete 200 laps around the 2.5-mile oval and finally get his second Indy 500 under his belt. If he gets lucky, he'll get a taste of the winner's milk. If he doesn't, he will most likely have to wait a long time to try again due to his new F1 duties. One thing's for sure, when he hops in that No. 66 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet next weekend, the world will be watching.
As a two-time Le Mans and F1 champ and winner of Daytona, Sebring, and countless other races, what does Alonso really have to prove? In my eyes, nothing, but he's clearly met his match in the Indy 500.
After a brief introduction and quick facemask adjustment, Alonso got right to business.
JP: It's been a long eight months without racing for you, and a lot has happened in the world since. How are you feeling overall?
FA: I'm very very excited. I'm looking forward, and I think we did a nice preparation given the circumstance [COVID-19], even without any test days, any simulator days, or anything like that compared to other 500s. It'll be my first race with empty grandstands, I know some of the [IndyCar] guys have already done a few empty races, but it will be a big shock for me.
JP: It’s no secret that IndyCar gives its fans generous access to the drivers compared to Formula 1, where areas close to the paddock are off-limits, and that can be a shock to outside drivers sometimes. Do you think that a quieter, empty track because of COVID-19 will make things a bit easier?
FA: I think the magical part of the 500 is the fans, especially around the garages as well as the interaction that you have with them, so I will miss that part a lot. Especially the races here in the U.S. [compared to Europe] they're very special. Racing at Daytona, Sebring, there is always this close contact with the fans, and that will be really missed.
Probably my life outside the car will be a little bit easier—maybe I can now go to the bathroom without having phones pointed at me!
JP: But will fewer distractions help you get the job done?
FA: It's not releasing any of the pressure. When I close the visor and go racing, it'll be the same pressure. Being in this huge place with these huge grandstands and not having a packed house will be very difficult, but we will put on a good show on television as thanks to the fans and we will hope to celebrate with them on TV.
JP: Speaking of celebrating, let's fast-forward to Monday, Aug. 24, the day after the 2020 Indy 500. Regardless of what happens on Sunday—what's next for you, will there be more one-off races, 500s, Dakars, etc?
FA: Look, in 2018 I stopped F1—then in 2019 last year, it was way too much, I was too active.
I was racing from January at the 24 Hours of Daytona, then to Sebring, and then for some testing, and then Spa [Francorchamps], then Indy again in May, then the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and then preparations for Dakar between that. I had a full-attack season, so in 2020 I wanted to relax a little bit.
The goal was to do the Dakar in January , then full focus on the Indy 500, and then the second part of the year I could relax and recharge the batteries. But then the virus arrived, and then we had a quieter season than everyone wanted.
JP: Is it as simple as putting on the Renault driving suit and carrying on in Formula 1, then?
FA: Starting Monday the 24th, it's going to be quiet season for me again. It will be about preparing myself physically and mentally. I will do a couple of simulator days with Renault, maybe attend two or three Grands Prix this season, but it will be a quiet, easy second part of the year for me because in 2021 coming back to F1 will be very demanding.
Whether Alonso wins the 2020 Indy 500 or retires on the first lap, he will undoubtedly be on the grid come the first F1 race of 2021. Why exactly is he willing to putting himself through the torture circus that is F1 once again? That answer is still unclear, but if I can take away one thing from our chat, is that he is taking his return quite seriously and training accordingly.
The 2020 Indianapolis 500 will take place on Sunday, Aug. 23, and the green flag will drop at 2:30 p.m. EST. It will be televised via NBC nationwide, including NBC affiliates in Indianapolis, where the race is normally blacked out for locals in order to boost ticket sales.
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