INDIANAPOLIS – At times, it was difficult to tell who was faster – Fernando Alonso or his crew.
Alonso’s crew changed an engine in less than two hours, barely got the No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda to technical inspection in time, then watched the oval newcomer record the fifth-fastest four-lap average of the Fast Nine Shootout late this afternoon to secure a spot on the second row for the start of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
The teamwork was a major boon for the two-time Formula One world champion, who will bypass the Monaco Grand Prix to race at Indy for the first time in pursuit of the career motorsports triple crown of wins at Monaco, Indy and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While the engine was being replaced, Alonso wasn’t sure if he’d be able to compete in the shootout, which determined the starting order for the first three rows of the May 28 race.
“At one point in the morning, we didn’t know if we would be able to run qualifying because we had to change the whole engine,” Alonso said. “But the team was amazing. There were guys from all six (Andretti) cars working on Car 29 just to make it possible. Thanks to all of that teamwork, I was able to go for qualifying.”
Around 2 p.m., shortly after the practice session, smoke billowed from an Andretti Autosport garage in Gasoline Alley. It got so thick and acrid that workers wheeled in electric fans to clear the air. Honda engineers decided to change the engine – an imposing task considering they had to have the car in the tech line by 4 p.m.
The problem was first noticed during the pre-qualifying practice session. By the time the No. 29 was back in the garage, it was emitting smoke.
“We saw something we didn’t like or Honda saw something they didn’t like on the vitals with the engine (during the practice session),” said Rob Edwards, chief operating officer of Andretti Autosport. “Obviously, it’s important to have a good, safe run, so in view of that we decided that the smart thing to do was to go ahead and change it.”
That’s when the scramble ensued. At one point, 18 crew members wearing various Andretti crew shirts scrambled around the car. They wrapped up the change, replaced the engine cover and wheeled the car to the nearby tech garage just in time to get it in line for qualifying.
“It takes about one and a half to two hours to make the change,” Edwards said as the engine was being replaced. “The challenge here is we’re going into Fast Nine qualifying, and so it’s all the details that make the difference. We’ve spent the last week rubbing on this car, taping seams and making sure it’s as aerodynamically efficient as possible. We’ve now got to reproduce that in whatever time’s left after the engine change gets done.”
They made it, and Alonso went out third of the final nine. His first lap was 231.113 mph, followed by two increasingly faster laps – 231.440 mph and 231.475 mph – before a slight drop-off at 231.171 mph.
For a moment, Alonso was on the pole position. He was topped by teammate Alexander Rossi at 231.487 mph, followed by Scott Dixon, whose 232.164 mph average secured the pole. Andretti teammate Takuma Sato knocked Alonso into the second row with an average of 231.365 mph before Ed Carpenter landed the No. 2 spot with an average of 231.664 mph, dropping Alonso to the middle position of the second row.
“The biggest priority was (Saturday) to secure the spot in the Fast Nine,” Alonso said.
Not only did Alonso nearly miss qualifying, he almost pulled the car into the pits when it bogged down on the second lap of the attempt.
“I had an overboost problem in Lap 2 coming out of the last corner,” Alonso said. “It was like hitting the brakes. I went one gear down and it started again picking up the speed. I thought (the lap) was 225 mph or something. I thought, ‘This qualifying run is over with this problem.’ … I was happily surprised with the total time. I think today the car performed better than (Saturday).”
Alonso credited the Andretti crews with choreographing the unexpected engine change, but he also praised two of his teammates -- Rossi and Sato – who, like him, have made the transition from F1 to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“This is probably the best team for a rookie to come into,” Alonso said. “The drivers come from different cars and different series. You have Takuma, who came from Formula One, and Alexander. Of all the comments that arrived to me, the comments from them are very, very useful. They know how one car behaves and how the other car behaves and what they need. They’ve experienced pretty much the same journey.”
Teams will practice again Monday from 12:30 p.m. ET to 4 p.m (streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. They won’t return to the track until Friday’s one-hour final practice during Miller Lite Carb Day festivities.
Tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500 are available at IMS.com. Race coverage begins at 11 a.m. ET May 28 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.