IndyCar: If Rossi can do it…Alonso’s mission improbable

Fernando Alonso’s 2017 Indy 500 bid has been the talk of the IndyCar paddock for a couple of weeks. Now that the initial excitement and surprise has subsided – slightly – attention turned to the magnitude of the task at hand. But are people grossly underestimating the chances of the 2-time F1 World Champion becoming the 11th rookie Indy 500 winner?

Alonso’s ‘mission: impossible’

Alonso’s Indy 500 bid will be tough. It is a massive challenge to take on the Brickyard at the best of times. Many drivers has testified that even as a full-time IndyCar driver who has perhaps spent some time racing ovals like Iowa, Texas or Pocono, nothing quite prepares you for Turn 1 at IMS. In fact when you start to break the challenge down it reads like the script of the next Mission: Impossible film.

Mr Alonso, your mission should you choose to accept it…

Alonso will be up against a grid made up of previous winners, multiple winners and guys who should be winners by now. All of which the Spaniard is not. He will be racing with guys who have – taking Helio Castroneves as an example – in some cases 15 plus years of experience at Indy. Which he doesn’t have. McLaren’s prized asset will need to adapt to a new team he has never raced for before, in a new type of car and a completely new type of racing. Plus drafting and running in traffic at 220mph plus. Cue the burning fuse…

Several media outlets have been writing Alonso’s bid off almost completely. At times it has been branded an act of folly, arrogance and even a cynical (but inspired) bit of distraction marketing by new McLaren CEO Zak Brown. The criticisms are of course statistically accurate. In the past 100 years there have only been 10 rookie winners. But few have mentioned the example of Alexander Rossi, the last rookie winner.

Who were the real Indy 500 rookie winners?

Before his maiden Indy 500 win in 2001, Castroneves had run 4 seasons in CART racing at high speed ovals like Michigan and Fontana. The previous year fellow CART star Juan Pablo Montoya won on his debut after a season and a half of racing at most of the same US superspeedways. Rossi on the other hand was about as inexperienced as an Indianapolis rookie can get.

Comparing Rossi and Alonso

Like Alonso he had never raced ovals before coming to IndyCar. Rossi’s oval testing was limited to practice and the race at Phoenix before heading to Indy for rookie orientation. The very late confirmation of his deal at Andretti/Herta meant he missed the open test at Phoenix.

Hunter-Reay Andretti Autosport IndyCar
Andretti Autosport – led by Ryan Hunter-Reay – were at times the team to beat in the 2016 Indy 500.

Admittedly Rossi was looking unlikely to win the 100th running of the Indy 500 on outright pace. However he was not some tail-end charlie who lucked in on lap 249. Like his Andretti Autosport teammates, Rossi was at the sharp end of the field throughout the race – particularly in the critical second half. The American led laps and fought his way through the field a number of times. Despite having no superspeedway experience, Rossi negotiated the twin challenges of drafting and managing traffic with aplomb.

Let’s see how you run in a crowd

That last point has been highlighted by several Indy veterans including 2-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya as significant to Alonso’s bid. Adapting quickly to running in traffic, in clean air and working with the draft are going to make or break Alonso’s bid for part 2 of the Triple Crown. But if an Indy rookie, with no superspeedway experience can do it, why not Alonso?

It is all but impossible to compare Rossi and Alonso directly. They have never run together in identical machinery. When we look at their single season of F1 together they raced for different teams. Both were stuck near the back of the F1 field for very different reasons. Their on-track battles were rare and much of that was down to Rossi being a rookie and Alonso a seasoned double World Champion. But the key for me is what happened to Rossi after the 2015 F1 season that is the key.

Rossi was not considered ‘good enough’

Unlike Alonso who bagged a prime test role with Renault after his Minardi debut, Rossi was scrambling around looking for a ride. His arrival in IndyCar in 2016 – and this is not a dig at IndyCar – was mostly down to the fact no one in F1 was interested in his services. To put it bluntly, Rossi had not been deemed good enough by the big fish from F1’s ‘piranha club’.

Rossi is talented and he has a bright future in IndyCar ahead of him. There is every reason to believe he could add an IndyCar championship plus another 500 to his rookie win last year. Personally I’m delighted he is racing in America instead of flogging himself to F1’s ever decreasing pool of small teams. But is Rossi comparable to Alonso?

Put it this way: Rossi is good but, as yet, he’s no Fernando Alonso.

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