INDIANAPOLIS — Alexander Rossi had no idea what he was getting into when he moved from Formula One to IndyCar.
Turning left the whole race? Looks easy. But as Rossi soon found out — and as two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and his McLaren team learned in failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 last weekend — getting around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at speeds eclipsing 230 mph is a lot tougher than it looks.
“I didn’t understand what oval racing was. I didn’t understand what IndyCar racing was, because there is no exposure to it in Europe,” said Rossi, an American who moved to Europe as a teenager and made his F1 dreams come true with seven starts during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
“So when guys haven’t been a part of it,” Rossi said, “they don’t understand how difficult it is, how unique it is to everything they’ve done. On TV, let’s be honest, it doesn’t look that challenging, so being a European driver, in your mind you’re at the pinnacle of the sport. You think, ‘Of course I can go over there and do that and it wouldn’t be a problem.’”
That inherent arrogance was underscored two years ago, when Alonso showed up at the Indy 500 for the first time. He ran near the front all race, only for his Honda engine to let him down.
Naturally, many F1 drivers were quick to pounce on their rival open-wheel series, claiming it must not be too difficult to win in IndyCar if Alonso could be competitive right out of the gate.
“Fernando may have done well in 2017, so there may have been a feeling like all he has to do is show up and take it over,” said Mark Miles, the chairman of Hulman & Co., which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I think this causes that sense of, ‘Hey, this is harder than we thought.’”
The moment Kyle Kaiser put their car in the field last Sunday was the moment McLaren’s world collapsed, leading to the firing of Bob Fernley, who headed its IndyCar operation.
One of the reasons the Indy 500 is so difficult is it tests the machines — and how they are tuned — just as much as the drivers.
“A big team like McLaren, and you see a small team like Juncos, it just shows this competition, it’s not easy no matter who you are,” three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves said. “It is one of the toughest places on Earth to get in, and you’ve seen big teams like Penske have failed.”
Rossi has so far bucked the trend, winning the 100th running of the Indy 500 in his 2016 debut. He was second the following year and fourth last year, each time benefiting from the experience, equipment and resources that his Andretti Autosport team has poured into its efforts over the years.
“Fernando is a world champion. You expect him to do a good job,” Rossi said. “But at Indianapolis, to find speed, it’s experience, kind of the tricks of the trade that money can’t buy, and I think that gets lost on a lot of people, and I think that was on full display this past week.” (AP)