Defining an Indy 500 rookie

Controversy followed the announcement of Fernando Alonso as the 2017 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year over Ed Jones. The Spaniard who failed to the finish the 101st running took the award over fellow rookie Ed Jones. Despite the fact Jones finished a spectacular 3rd which caused quite a storm..

Dale Coyne and his eponymous team were  livid that the English-born, Dubai-raised Jones was overlooked:

“Who in the hell votes for these things?” Coyne commented to RACER.com.

Dale Coyne Sebastien Bourdais
(c) IndyCar/Jim Haines

“It’s not fair and at least it should have been co-rookie of the year. Everybody on the internet is saying Ed got robbed and I agree. It’s a travesty”, concluded the longtime IndyCar team owner.

Who the hell votes for Rookie of the Year anyway?

The spark for the internet chatter came, in part, from Dale Coyne Racing kicking up a fuss. A Twitter-storm erupted as the team plus a number of notable motorsport media correspondents questioned the decision. The indignation of several professional journalists was however quite amusing; the media are the people given the honour of voting for the Rookie of the Year award. Awkward.

Popular opinion sided firmly with Jones as the moral victor. Broadly the arguments played out around 3 key points. Firstly on the basis of Jones’ finishing position relative to Alonso’s. Secondly in terms of the relative budget/resource poverty of the Coyne team compared to Andretti Autosport/McLaren. And finally whether an F1 veteran and multiple World champion really counted as a  rookie.

Defining an Indy 500 rookie

At face value all the arguments were pretty sound.

Jones finished an amazing 3rd place on his Indy 500 debut. By contrast Alonso – thanks to his Honda engine – came home a distant 24th. Dale Coyne Racing is a minnow by comparison to the Andretti Autosport empire, even without the additional resources from the McLaren F1 team. And in perhaps the starkest contrast of all, Jones is a youthful 23 years of age with only 6 seasons of junior racing behind him. Meanwhile Alonso is regarded as a living legend by many and a double World champion (who should be at least a triple champion by now), With 16 F1 seasons under his belt there were many who described him as a rookie with air quotes.

Fernando Alonso IndyCar Indy 500 helmet

Based on all that you can see why many fans and some journalists were (and still are) up in the arms. But that is not quite the whole story.

Much more than just turning left

Defining what a rookie is at Indy is open to contrasting opinions, most of them pretty subjective. There are some facts that are undeniable however that can put the argument in to proper context.

Primarily there is the inescapable truth that oval racing is much more than ‘just turning left’. The nuances of the draft, pack running, timing a slingshot move have baffled many over the years. Not to mention the complex idiosyncrasies of the Brickyard itself. Each turn at Indianapolis is unique even before you add in the significant impact that minor changes in wind direction and humidity often have on car performance.

In this regard Alonso and not Jones is the true rookie.

Seven times more oval experience

When you compare their respective track records, Jones has vastly more oval experience than his illustrious fellow racer. Prior to the 2017 Indy 500 Jones had competed in 6 IndyLights oval events – including the Freedom 100 – and this year’s Desert Diamond Grand Prix at Phoenix. By contrast, Alonso had competed in a grand total of zero races.

Jones while racing with Carlin at Indianapolis in IndyLights

On the issue of resources it is worth considering more than just the usual Dale Coyne Racing poor, Andretti Autosport rich dichotomy.

Undoubtedly Andretti Autosport is a powerhouse in IndyCar but this was a set up and crew due to run Stef Wilson. No disrespect to the Briton but there was a slim chance anyone was picking him out to win this year.

For starters the crew itself was hastily put together from other motor sport programmes and it looked like it. At pit stops Alonso’s crew were giving it their all but looked pedestrian compared to the squads at Penske, Ganassi, and of course Andretti itself.

Coyne was the team to beat

Before Sebastien Bourdais’ horror smash during qualifying, Dale Coyne Racing had the fastest car in the 33-entrant field. Were it not for the accident, every insider believed Bourdais would have taken pole and by some margin. And that sentiment was echoed by Scott Dixon, the man who did eventually claim the coveted Indy 500 pole.

The Coyne Racing outfit may well be underfunded and resourced relative to the IndyCar superteams. But right up until that accident in qualifying, they had the upper hand over Andretti and the rest of the field. Not to mention the fact they were leading the championship point standings too.

It is not just about where you finish

If the Rookie of the Year award was decided purely on finishing position then Jones would have walked it. Many will argue that what happens between lap 1 and lap 199 matters little – it is where you finish on lap 200 that counts. But in a sport where mechanical issues can determine whether you get to lap 200, it is a rather narrow perspective.

And at any rate though Alonso may not have finished the race he led the 500 four times for a total of 27 laps. More laps than previous winners Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi and eventual winner Takuma Sato. Plus the Spaniard qualified on the second row despite an overboost problem during his run and recorded the fastest average lap speed during the race. Not bad for a driver who had never raced on an oval in his life.

Alonso – a worthy winner

Though it might not be a popular stance, Alonso was a worthy winner of the Rookie of the Year Award. In all honesty, given the global media coverage the McLaren driver brought to the event it is perhaps appropriate that he finished his Indianapolis adventure with some kind of silverware.

Fernando Alonso IndyCar Indy fans

In the final analysis Ed Jones walked away with a third place finish at the greatest race in the world. Alonso walked away with what might be considered as a token gesture. But be of no doubt, Alonso would readily swap his Rookie of the Year award for a do over of Sunday and another shot at Indy 500 immortality.

Related article – Why IndyCar should ‘invest’ in Fernando Alonso

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