INDIANAPOLIS — Fernando Alonso got his first real introduction to IndyCar racing Monday.
The track conditions changed dramatically from his trip to Indianapolis in early May. A rear suspension problem caused the team to scale back its late-day plans, and he found out just how much there is to learn over the next 10 days.
It’s a big challenge — even for a Formula One star. Alonso completed 20 laps in his first full Indianapolis 500 practice, finishing 19th on the opening day speed chart with a fast lap of 223.025 mph.
"Today, I was happier, I felt better in the car," he said. "So yeah, definitely a much better day, a much better feeling. I was able to drive the car or start driving the car today. Still a long way for me to work and to learn, but definitely, I feel like I took some good steps today."
For Alonso, it’s just the start of a two-week cram session.
While some teams will use early week practices to make major adjustments and simulate racing conditions, Andretti Autosport wanted to get Alonso some work in traffic during the usually chaotic final 60 minutes of practice — better known in racing circles as Happy Hour.
The suspension issues scrubbed those plans, forcing Alonso to recalibrate when practice resumes Tuesday afternoon.
But he still has lots of opportunities to get this month back on track.
There are four more full days of practice before qualifying begins Saturday. The nine-car pole shootout will be held Sunday and then there will be two more practice sessions before the May 28 race. The early forecast doesn’t look as if it will wash away any of that on-track time.
With Andretti’s team attempting to put six cars on the traditional 33-car starting grid, they can spend most of that time gathering data from the other five drivers as Alonso gets acclimated to driving counterclockwise between concrete walls at speeds routinely topping 220 mph.
Some of the series’ veterans have been competing for two decades or more, putting the first-time IndyCar driver at a distinct disadvantage.
There are other potential obstacles, too.
Monday’s warmer temperatures and stronger winds created completely different conditions on the 2.5-mile oval than Alonso had his first time around the historic Brickyard. At one point, the track temperatures between turns two and four differed by 9 degrees.
And after describing the track as "narrow" following his first Indy test, Alonso started to get a sense of how much more nerve-wracking it can be when 31 other drivers are turning laps with him.
The steep learning curve — and his Sunday flight following the Spanish Grand Prix– may explain why Alonso was more than 3 mph off the pace set by teammate Marco Andretti, who posted the fastest lap of the day at 226.338 mph.
The Honda engines, which Alonso has, took four of the five top spots Monday. Two-time Indy pole-winner Ed Carpenter was the only Chevrolet driver in the top five. He was third at 224.969.
Still, most expect Alonso to be in the mix on race day.
"I think he’s more prepared than most rookies, to be honest," Marco Andretti said. "I think he’s got a lot of knowledge and experience from the whole team and to go off of — probably too much information at once thrown at him. But more prepared than me when I was 19, know what I mean? Driving an F1 car, you’re still at some level of understanding dirty air and how to manoeuvr in out. So it’s just that but a little more intense."
The expectations certainly haven’t dissipated.
Team owner Michael Andretti has repeatedly said he expects Alonso to contend. Last year, rookie Alexander Rossi won the race for Andretti’s team.
Ticket sales surged after the initial announcement Alonso would skip Monaco so he could chase the second jewel in auto racing’s triple crown.
McLaren Technology Group executive director Zak Brown is even adding exclusive material on Alonso on the Motorsport Network website this month, to help global fans track what is expected to be a steady progression that might not be a one-shot deal.
"He wants to win the Indianapolis 500 and I think he’ll keep trying until he does," the Motorsport Network chairman told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "So I think you can expect to see him back, unless he kicks that box this year. He doesn’t want to compete in the Indianapolis 500, he wants to win it."