F1 Star Alonso takes first laps on oval, set to try Indy 500

FILE - This is a Friday Oct 7, 2016 file photo of McLaren driver's Jenson Button, left, of Britain and Fernando Alonso of Spain as they pose for a photo with their team in front of their pit lane garage ahead of the first practice session for the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at the Suzuka International Circuit in Suzuka, Japan. Although the 37-year-old Button retired at the end of last season, he is taking Alonso’s seat for the Monaco Grand Prix for a single race because McLaren has allowed Alonso to make his IndyCar debut at the Indianapolis 500 on May 28 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso passed his rookie orientation test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday, allowing him to try to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 later this month.

Alonso turned 50 laps in his morning test session, taking less than three hours to pass all three phases of the rookie test on his first oval track. He finished the day by logging another 60 laps, his fastest being 222.548 mph on a cool, breezy day in Indy.

“I was convinced, 100 percent, that I was doing flat out into the first turn,” Alonso said. “But my foot was not flat out on the first lap. It was a very good feeling to be able to feel the respect of this place, to feel the respect of the car.”

Once he passed the rookie test, he had to deal with the threat of rain, which ended the session two hours early. Team owner Michael Andretti said there wasn’t much more Alonso could have done anyway because he was out of tires.

Alonso got his first taste of the historic, 2.5-mile track in less than ideal conditions, with temperatures cooling to the low 50s Fahrenheit and clouds overtaking the morning sun. Gusts of wind in the Brickyard’s four distinctly different corners certainly made life tricky for the oval newcomer, too. He even hit two birds as he turned a lap of just under 220 mph, forcing crew members to clean the mess off his car during his next pit stop.

Yet Alonso made it look easy.

“I think the track definitely changed during the day,” he said. “In the morning, there was less wind or less gusts. But I don’t know if the conditions were good or not. I have no idea because I have no experience here. But things definitely got worse in the afternoon because of the wind.”

It didn’t seem to bother Alonso, who remained dressed in his regular gear even when the team pulled the car back to Gasoline Alley. Afterward, he hopped back in the cockpit after taking a short break and tried to beat the rain again.

Alonso hopes to follow the example Alexander Rossi set last year. Rossi, an ex-Formula One driver, won in his rookie 500 start last year and the 25-year-old American is a sort of pseudo-mentor to the 35-year-old F1 veteran.

“I can’t add any more than Ryan (Hunter-Reay) or Marco (Andretti),” Rossi said, referring to his teammates. “If he asked, I think I’ll point him in their direction.”

Marco Andretti set up the car for Alonso, who strapped himself into the bright orange Honda and gradually moved past the 200 mph threshold and neared 210 before heading to the pits in the early session.

“It was great. He did perfect. Now we can go play a little bit,” Michael Andretti said. “He’s the real deal. I think he’s going to have a really good month.”

Alonso will attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 later this month, and hopefully, some day, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He’s on a quest to win what’s considered the Triple Crown of racing. That includes the Monaco Grand Prix, which he’s already won. This bid at Indianapolis requires him to master new cars and racing styles.

“He’s getting the feel of it,” IndyCar legend Mario Andretti said. “He’s doing exactly what he needs to do. The experience that he has should dominate, but the anxiety is still there.”

Alonso, whose 32 F1 wins rank sixth all-time, has competed before at Indianapolis, but on the road course set up for the U.S. Grand Prix. He waited patiently for his turn behind the wheel while Marco Andretti ran several laps to get the car set up.

“You just need to make sure it stuck for him to get confidence,” Marco Andretti said after exiting the car. “He’ll have to learn by fire. He’s asking the right questions. He’ll be fine. He’s a race car driver. I think he’ll leave today pretty confident.”

Alonso drives for struggling McLaren in Formula One. He will be the sixth entry for Andretti Autosport at Indy in a partnership with Honda and McLaren. He began preparing for Indy by testing on a simulator, where the walls aren’t so intimidating and there’s no traffic to negotiate.

Speedway president Doug Boles said Alonso’s planned appearance in the race has sent ticket sales trending higher than all but one of the last 20 years.

“It’s been great for the momentum and excitement,” Boles said. “Fans from all over the world … began buying tickets. It’s great for the brand.”


More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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