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

Race driver Fernando Alonso of Spain drives down the front straightaway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Alonso plans to miss the Monaco Grand Prix this year to drive in the Indianapolis 500. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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.

“It was fun, it was a good way to start and reach the speed. A little difficult at the beginning to reach the speeds, but then the next stages it was fine,” he said. “At the moment everything looks good. … Now I think we start the real deal.”

Alonso posted a best lap speed of 219.654 mph in the early session and was even faster in the afternoon. With the threat of rain, the Spaniard drove another 38 laps, going as fast 222.548 in less than ideal conditions as temperatures cooled to the low 50s and blue skies turned gray. Gusts of wind in the Brickyard’s four distinctly different corners certainly made life tricky for the oval newcomer.

While he made it look easy, learning a new track in these conditions made Alonso uneasy.

“Not at all,” Alonso said when asked if he felt comfortable in the No. 29 car. “I was getting up to speed. The circuit looks so narrow when you’re at that speed. It’s very, very narrow. I was trying different lines. I was not as comfortable as I will be in a couple of weeks.”

But Alonso performed like a veteran. He stayed in his driver’s suit when the team pulled the car back to Gasoline Alley, then 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.”

It was Andretti who 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,” said Michael Andretti, who owns the No. 29. “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. He’s going to be spoiled after today, that’s for sure.”

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.”

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