INDIANAPOLIS – The last time Fernando Alonso encountered a rolling start, he was 15 years old and driving a go-kart. That fact, perhaps above all others, will shape his performance today.
When 33 cars rumble down the frontstretch at the start of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Alonso, in the No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, will be positioned between Takuma Sato and JR Hildebrand in the second row. Eighty-two percent of the field will be behind him, just 9 percent in front of him.
How he maneuvers through the chaos of the start will – as it does for everyone else in the race – play a large part in where Alonso finishes. But, unlike the other 32 drivers, Alonso hasn’t experienced a rolling start in 20 years.
That explains why he’s been studying details of previous rolling starts.
“I’ve been watching videos from previous years,” Alonso said. “Also (listening to) comments by some of the guys and others, and watching the data from the five other cars on our team. I’ve been trying to figure out through different ways how to do it, trying out different things on the simulator.”
Throughout the eight practice sessions leading up to today’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alonso has shown speed and skill in traffic. But the start of the Indy 500 has been known to confound even the most experienced and skilled racers. So Alonso has been using computer simulations to create lifelike situations to give him ideas of what to expect.
But the two-time Formula One world champion doesn’t have a pre-arranged strategy for the start.
“I don’t think I have a plan for the beginning of the race,” he said. “In Formula One, we’re used to playing all of our cards in the first couple of corners because positions are defined after that. But here it is very different. I cannot say I will play it safe at the beginning of the race because everyone else will take advantage of that. I need to be very open about what is going to happen. If I can be running in a comfortable group, I will be happy. If I’m trailing behind the group, I will be calm.”
Las Vegas oddsmakers list Alonso among the favorites. The latest odds have him at 6-1, trailing pole winner Scott Dixon (11-2) and just ahead of Will Power (8-1).
“I think I have a lower possibility than the big names because I’m lacking the experience, but if I have a chance I will go for it,” Alonso said. “I will try to compensate for the lack of experience with good motivation and good racing experience and a lot of respect for everyone and the race. If they want to bet and put money on myself, I will try to make that happen.”
Good racing experience, indeed. The reason behind the positive predictions lies with Alonso’s 32 victories in 16 years in F1. He took to the new track and new car almost immediately during his first test session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 3, and has consistently been near the top of the daily timesheets without any mistakes.
“I feel ready, definitely,” he said. “I’m still lacking in some experience. In the crucial moments of the race, I’m sure all of the big guys will have their little tricks here and there that I will hopefully learn during the race. But I feel ready.
“It’s my first time for a lot of these things, like rolling starts. But at the same time, I worked very, very hard, so I cannot be better prepared than I am. Maybe it’s not good enough, but I could not do any more.”
He’s done so with the help of his temporary teammates. The addition of Alonso and Jack Harvey for the 500 expanded Andretti Autosport’s already large operation to six cars – the largest in the field.
“We're a big team that works well together as is,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner. “So adding the others in has been somewhat seamless. We're just all pulling in the same direction. … That's one of our attributes, is being able to work as a big team, being able to pull from one another to benefit the overall good of the team, to pull us all forward.
For Alonso, pulling forward means leaving emotions out of the equation.
“Until Monday, there are no emotions allowed to enter your mind,” he said. “You are totally focused and working with the team. … The mind is so focused on the race that there is no space for emotions at the moment.”
Live coverage of the race begins at 11 a.m. ET on ABC. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 12:21 p.m.