INDIANAPOLIS – When he heard Fernando Alonso would be competing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Gil de Ferran sent a complimentary email to Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology Group.
At the time, de Ferran had no idea it would result in a historic opportunity.
The 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner was quickly summoned by Brown and Alonso to offer advice about the famous 500-mile race and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s quirks and eccentricities to the two-time Formula One champion.
“I wrote him a little note, a couple of paragraphs, and the next thing I knew they contacted me,” de Ferran said. “I said, ‘Yes, it would be an honor.”
Apparently, his advice is working. Before a rain delay offered de Ferran some time to talk to reporters, Alonso had recorded the fifth-fastest time of today’s practice session – 231.549 mph in the No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda. It was the third-fastest lap without a tow during five days of practice, making Alonso a legitimate threat to win the pole position this weekend.
“It’s hard for me to judge that,” de Ferran said. “Everything is going well. Today we had another good hour and a half (before the rain), and I think we’re as prepared as we’re going to be.”
Alonso got up to speed quickly during his first day of practice Monday. He’s spent the rest of the week working in tandems and groups with Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato and Jack Harvey, and working in traffic with competitors.
“It was definitely a new experience because you run at those speeds for the whole lap,” Alonso said during a press conference Wednesday. “It's not one instance on the lap that you reach 220, 230 miles like we do (in Formula One). … You learn, you try to pass. You feel the car, how it handles behind another car, how close you can be to the other car on the corners. But when you arrive to the race day, it's going to be very different.”
If anyone understands that transition, it’s de Ferran, 49. A veteran of 161 Indy car races, he won Indy car championships in 2000 and 2001, then won the Indy 500 in his final season with Team Penske 14 years ago.
In 2005, de Ferran was hired as sports director for the BAR-Honda Formula One team, a position he held until July 2007. He returned to race sports cars in 2008 and 2009, when his team finished second in the IMSA LMP1 championship standings.
As news broke of Alonso’s intention to bypass the Monaco Grand Prix to race at Indy, de Ferran, thrilled by the news, sent off a friendly email to Brown.
“I said, ‘If I can help you, just tell me,’” de Ferran recalled. “It was more of a congratulatory note. I really think what they did to bring Fernando over here is fantastic for motorsports. It’s clearly fantastic for INDYCAR – that’s easy for everyone to see – but it’s also great for Fernando and great for Formula One. He’s already making new fans here in North America, and those fans will follow him wherever he goes.”
It’s also drawing substantial attention internationally, as IMS and INDYCAR officials expect a spike in television ratings and web traffic as Alonso and 32 other drivers prepare to run for the pole position Saturday and Sunday.
The experience of the 35-year-old Spaniard – who has 32 F1 victories and the 2005 and 2006 championships to his credit – makes de Ferran’s task easy.
“Even though he’s a rookie, he’s in many ways not a rookie at all,” de Ferran said. “In my mind, he’s one of the best drivers today, if not one of the best drivers in history. You’re not trying to bring somebody on who has very little experience driving high-performance cars and being in different racing situations.
“You’re really trying to bring to his awareness some of the nuances about what he’s about to encounter so he can think about it ahead of time. I suppose that would be a little bit different if you were dealing with a younger, much less experienced person. … There’s a big difference in how you deal with one or the other.”
Qualifications take place Saturday and Sunday to determine the 33-car starting order for the May 28 race. Coverage is available Saturday on WatchESPN (11 a.m.-3 p.m. ET) and ABC (4-6 p.m.). On Sunday, when the grid positions are set, including the Verizon P1 Award pole winner, coverage is again on WatchESPN (2:30-4 p.m.) and ABC (4-6 p.m.).
Visit IMS.com for Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend or race ticket information.