Why Alonso’s Indy 500 Is A Big Deal
Fernando can do what only one person in history has done before tomorrow – join Graham Hill as winners of the illustrious triple crown. Find out the history of the sport in this article or feel free to watch the video to dive deep on the history of F1 at the Indy 500.
The illustrious triple crown.
3 legs of motorsport glory.
3 different disciplines.
That’s what the 24 hours of Le Mans, The Indy 500, and The Monaco Grand Prix all have in common. What’s unique to the Indy 500 is it requires crossing the Atlantic to take a shot at.
Which is no easy task logistically speaking. But even once you got here, you had the challenge of the oval ahead of you. Many have tried their hand and failed at the enormously difficult task.
In fact, one stands alone among the rest of motorsport competitors who has won all three legs. But Fernando Alonso could change that. But he has his work cut out for him. Unlike in Formula 1 where slicing through the field is very much dependent on the power you boast, ovals are different. And set ups matter a great deal. Only 10x has a driver qualified worse than 20th and still gone on to win. That number dramatically shrinks to just a couple of times post 1936.
But there’s always a chance.
And it’s not just Alonso facing nearly impossible odds. Penske has three of their previous 500 champions fighting from beyond 20 as Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves start from 22nd, 25th and 28th. But those 4 have something else in common aside from having their work cut out for them in the 104th running of the Indy 500 – they all have competed on the FIA career ladder in a form of Formula series racing with gradations of success.
Where they deviate is Alonso doesn’t have a full time ride for the 2020 season. So why is Alonso running in the event as a one off? Some people are turned off by what Alonso is doing – deeming him a distraction from other Indy standouts.
The Indianapolis 500 is significantly older than the Formula One championships with Grand Prix racing being held leading up the inaugural FIA Championship of Drivers season in 1950. The Indy 500 would host Formula 1 as an official championship race until 1960 where it would fall off the championship calendar. During that initial decade, Drivers competing for the Drivers World championship and later in the decade when it was formed the Constructors World championship didn’t compete in the indy 500. It required travel and many other logistical challenges.
The ties between F1 and the Indy 500 run deep.
From 1911 to 1988, only 7 titles were taken by drivers under a flag other than the United States.
This includes 5 of the first 8 events held.
Of the next 31 events held since then, 23 Drivers racing under non-american flags have won the illustrious event.
This includes 12 of the past 15.
But the most devoted Formula 1 fans will likely notice many of these names, less than their flag.
We’ll start with the shift in dynamics and the most recent trend of former Formula drivers in the Indy 500.
Guess The Indy 500 Champ
Can you guess the names of each of these faces below? Hint – all of them won the Indy 500 AND competed in Formula 1. You’ll encounter each of their stories below.
The British Invade The Indy 500
Just a quick recap, the reason there’s any connection of the Indy 500 and the FIA Formula 1 championships period is due to the fact that the Indianapolis 500 was classified in the Formula 1 Championships from 1950 – 1960. Prior to that, the idea of the triple crown as we know it today wouldn’t technically have existed.
As the popularity and prestige began to blossom with the advancement of the car, all discipline championships grew exponentially in their degree of difficulty to win.
Jim Clark’s Indy 500 pursuits were more than likely driven by his passion for racing all types of cars and less so out of the desire to be a triple crown king. Again, this wouldn’t carry the type of prestige it does today. It would take half a century of drivers failing to achieve this feat for it to turn into what it is today.
Not to mention the pay for Formula 1 big names to come over at that time was quite large. Jackie Stewart was quoted as saying the following:
“And in those days we did sportscars, GT cars, CANAM cars, touring cars; That was the only way you made any money. Indianapolis was a money machine for us in one respect, but we wanted to do it.”
It was no secret Jim Clark was considered by his peers as one of the best drivers to get behind the wheel. If he’s within striking range, he’s going to win. So to see him start P5 only to be runner up was an odd site indeed. Even more so to see him fail to capture the title from pole on his second attempt in 1964. Third time was the charm for Clark and by then, other formula 1 champions wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
But they weren’t the first F1 champions to cross the atlantic to try their hand at the 500 miles. The first driver to try their hand at Indy was Alberto Ascari in 1952 while the race was still in the championships. Despite qualifying in 25th place with a lower qualifying speed, he’d make his way up to 9th place before he encountered a frozen wheel bearing forcing him to spin out and retire from the race on lap 40. It would not dissuade him as he’d go on to win every single championship event that season after his blow at The Indy 500 as well as every single pole aside from 1 in Silverstone. He would go on to win two consecutive championships.
Seeing the strain traveling to the US during the season put on Ascari’s season, Fangio wisely waited until his career was dwindling to try the 500 miles. You have to remember FIA sanctioned Formula 1 racing didn’t officially begin until after WWII. Fangio would be in his 40’s by the time he won his first title. While Ascari’s indy 500 was on the eve of his first title, Fangio’s 1958 attempt was on the heels of his reign in F1 after winning all titles from 1951 to 1957 aside from Ascari’s double championships mentioned above. Like Ascari though, Fangio would fail to accomplish the task but in his case, he failed to qualify as he could not maintain minimum speeds needed.
The lesson was clear, if you want to win at Indy, you better bring a powerful car with a good aero package, solid power, AND can go the distance.
Jack Brabham would make his Indy debut next as the two time reigning F1 champion at the 1961 Indy 500. This would mark the catalyst for drivers racing the event outside of Formula 1 championship points. The British Invasion as it was dubbed was accompanied with the arrival of the rear-engine. Racing for the last time on the original bricks before the track was repaved following this ‘61 season, Brabham would struggle to match the straight line speed but had the advantage in the corners. His climb from P17 to P9 was respectable, but not a cake walk.
Clark was next in 1963 marking another occasion the sitting F1 champion would race – but this time, he was much more formidable. He would lose the race in controversial fashion as Parnelli Jones would go on to win despite an oil leak that many thought should have black flagged the driver. Chapman believed it was bias against Clark & had it been an American in P2 behind Jones, he would have been shown the black flag but the lack of action allowed Jones to take his first and only 500 title. Clark’s efforts earned him rookie of the year honors for the race.
This would also be the first time 2 Formula 1 champions would be in the field as Brabham was back finishing P20.
Clark would appear in 5 straight events at Indy where he’d start the next 3 races P1, P2, P2 respectively. The 500 was important to him, clearly. He would lose the 1964 championship to John Surtees in his Ferrari as well as Graham Hill. So when he won South Africa and elected to skip Monaco to race in Indy, it was a major risk. At that time, only the best 6 events were scored for your championship tally. But the gamble would pay off. He avenged his 1963 loss to Jones with a win in 1965 and was the first rear-engine in the history of the Indy 500 as well as being the first non-American to win since 1916. After his success stateside, he’d go on a rampage winning everything he touched racking up 5 consecutive wins putting him out of reach of any other driver. As such, he’d be the only driver in history to win the indy 500 and the World Drivers Championship in the same year.
That 1965 race was important also because of the inclusion of Mario Andretti who finished P3 on his first attempt and was rookie of the year. Chapman and Andretti would first converge here as Mario’s career was blossoming. The Lotus boss told Mario to call him when he was ready to race in Formula 1 which he would deliver on. Andretti was different than the other drivers mentioned so far in that he found success in open wheel racing in the US first, then went to Europe. He would go on to win open wheel titles in this year and defended his USAC Championship in 1966. He’d further add to his titles at home with a Daytona 500 victory in 1967. He’d win yet another for STP the same year he’d finally claim his indy 500 victory in 1969.
He was ready to take Chapman up on his offer. He would then begin to drive part time in F1 never really hitting his stride in his Lotus 49 or 63. But the March 701 Chassis backed by STP in 1970 gave him his first real result in F1 with a podium in spain.
The following year he’d get a ride with Ferrari in 12 cylinder car and would amazingly win the opener for the Scuderia after Denny Hulme was forced to pit and relinquish the win with just 3 laps to go handing Andretti the victory. He’d finish just a point behind Clay Regazzoni of Ferrari despite 4 fewer starts. He would continue to impress while maintaining a good relationship with Lotus boss chapman who who met a decade earlier and would get another shot at driving his revolutionary new technology fitted on the Lotus 79. He’d drive it to his 1978 title. But the advantage was quickly adopted and the edge was gone as soon as it arrived. Andretti’s formula 1 career peaked that season and he’d only podium two more times over the next 4 seasons. He’d switch gears away from racing abroad and took the 1984 PPG Indycar title. Despite his F1 title, he’d never win the Monaco grand prix, a pillar in the triple crown.
Andretti’s accomplishments are unprecedented and show just how translatable driving skills are with the right exposure. Gone are the days of such frequent guest drives like what Mario enjoyed from 1968 to 1974. But it did prove that a driver with an American open wheel title can find success in F1. But the scheduling conflicts became more and more disruptive. This was no more evident by Andretti’s F1 title year when he had to fly back from Zolder. He missed qualifying and was forced to start last due to driver change. Disappointed I’m sure, but he also got to unveil to the world the Lotus 79 finally and he was lightning at the wheel – he’d win that Belgian grand prix – in fact he’d win 5 of the next 11 races that reason.
Reinforcing this pattern was Mark Donohue. Donohue was an incredible driver who’s life was tragically cut short racing. But by then it was clear he was special. He gave Penske their first Indy 500 win in 1972 as well as their first NASCAR win at the top division the following year. He’s still the last non-full time driver to win a NASCAR Winston Cup road race.
He and Mario Andretti are the start of it all for American drivers starting in stateside racing and then transitioning over to full time Formula 1 driving. Another driver who was instrumental in proving that drivers with non traditional paths to Formula 1 still had all the talent was Peter Revson.
Heir to the Revlon Company, he left it all behind to pursue racing. And his didn’t take a war chest, he literally lived in his van he loved racing so much. After he got a break with Reg Parnell but it would evaporate before his very eyes and his F1 career was on hold. Having walked away from his former life, he pressed on and would keep racing.
Linking them all together was Andretti’s 1969 winning drive at the Indy 500 where rookies Mark Donohue and Peter Revson would steal the show along with veteran Dan Gurney. Revson would start plumb last in 33rd and would work his way all the way up to P5. Controversially, Mark Donohue qualified fourth and finished P7 which would earn him rookie of the year status despite Revson finishing better. What’s more, Revvie did this in a highly underwhelming Brabham BT25.
Revson and Donohue would trade impressive marks for the next few years at IMS with Donohue taking runner up back to back years ultimately to win on his 4th attempt in 1972. He’d lead the second most amount of laps at 52 in 1971 after Revvie qualified on pole but his car would fail him and Revvie would go on for his runner up finish.
It wasn’t until after his indy 500 success that Revson caught a break. He would partner former F1 champion Denny Hulme for the 1972 season at McLaren. He would take 4 podiums and finish 5th in the championship despite missing 25% of the season. The following season he’d finish P5 again but 12 points ahead of Hulme this time taking 2 victories.
Hulme would be another name known around town due to this affiliation with Shelby Racing and Le Mans. He was a close friend of Peter Revson much of what they did overlapped. 1967 in particular was nearly a MEGA year for Hulme. In the eyes of many, he and Ken Miles should have crowned 1966 Le Mans P5 class winners after Ken’s dramatic slow down so Ford could finish in victory formation for a photo finish. But it was the all New Zealander Number 2 car of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon that were given the win on a technicality.
Hulme would win the 1967 Formula 1 championship and Monaco in the process. After starting P24, he would nearly work his way back up at the ‘67 Indy 500 finishing P4. Despite falling just short, he and Donohue’s Indy 500 rookie of the year would close out the decade.
While Fangio and Ascari issued the challenge to future F1 drivers to prove their skill at Indy, the drivers of the 60’s answered the call and then some. There were:
- 2 winners from F1
- 4 rookie of the year awards
The caveat being that two of those years F1 drivers made their debut overlapping other F1 rookie drivers.
Graham Hill would be one of just 10 drivers who would win the Indy 500 on their first attempt. Ironically he did not win rookie of the year honors in 1966, Jackie Stewart did.
And Hulme’s 1967 rookie of the year came at the expense of Revson’s showing. Though it might have been due to his famous snubbing at Le Mans thanks to the beef Ford had with the late Ken Miles. That’s just speculation, though.
It’s at this point we progress through the story to talk about the shift that emerged.
See, over the next 70’s and 80’s the shift would begin to occur. As Formula 1 intensified with ground effects and then turbo engines, the competition would get ever more strong. Constructors would become more established. And the series would attract some of the biggest names in motorsports. This would lead to a bigger audience, a more global scale, bigger sponsors, bigger salaries, etc etc. It became very difficult to justify missing any part of the season or even risk appearing not fully committed to F1. You could always be next to go and there were plenty of drivers with enough super license points waiting their turn to take your seat. Not to mention, the scheduling of the Monaco Grand Prix and The indy 500 became too much of an issue. Both series would advance to the point where it took so much out of you that’s it very difficult to be able to swing in the same weekend.
So what began to happen is drivers would spend a bit of time in Formula racing or on the FIA ladder, and either go straight to CART during that time OR would rebound out of an F1 drive into an American open wheel series.
Excluding the early duels between Mark Donahue and Peter Revson as well as the on and off again success of Mario Andretti who we’ve covered previously, the next two decades would see a few successes but it would never be like it was in the 60’s. But the names that showed up, tended to stick around.
The major flop of that time came from Clay Regazzoni whose results at Indy were not terribly memorable. His 1977 attempt was proof you couldn’t just waltz over and pick up a quick win. The 1976 F1 season was one of the most drama filled seasons in the sport’s history. It played out the nearly fatal crash of then Ferrari man Niki Lauda who “recovered” after just 2 grand prix only to return for the final four events where he’d miss out on a title by a single point to James Hunt, 77 to 76. While all that was happening, Regazzoni scored less than half the points of his teammate and slipped behind both Tyrell’s to P5. He was then released from Ferrari & made a shock move to Ensign for his 1977 campaign. His F1 season that year would be about as unspectacular as his Indy 500 debut.
After a big crash on the second day following pole day, but he’d have his car in working order to try again on the third day. Like Andretti, he was still racing in Monaco. But Andretti was quick enough and was able to avoid traveling back to run this weekend. Clay was forced to fly back and forth. He’d ultimately finish 30th from fuel cell failure in the first pits.
More serious contenders came from a string of back to back to back showings from drivers with Formula 1 roots when Teo Fabi and Roberto Guerrero won rookie of the year in the 1983 and 1984 races respectively and then Danny Sullivan would win the event in 1985.
Fabi’s 1983 season at CART would prove what many thought of his talents in F1 at the time – the man can drive. His F1 experience would come after his P3 in the European Formula 2 championships and then a controversial Formula 1 season in 1982 amid the FISA-FOCA wars. Fabi would be the only driver to break strike at the 1982 Drivers Strike in South Africa which jeopardized his seat in 1983. When his F1 seat never materialized, he’d go on to have an incredibly successful year in CART earning rookie of the year in both the championship which he finished 2nd taking 4 wins, double that of the next best driver and 46% of poles as well as the first rookie to take pole at indy since 1950. Unfortunately he’d be the perfect case study for why drivers should never split time. His 1983 CART season wooed F1 constructors back around and he’d get a seat but unfortunately it was next to reigning champion Nelson Piquet. He would get demolished. And Due to the factors I mentioned previously, his F1 results would suffer while he was racing both in CART and in Europe. He devoted all of his attention to F1 and he’d pick up a podium, P4, and P5.
While Guerroro had much less success in Formula 1, he would have noteworthy finishes at the Indy 500 taking top 4 finishes on his first four attempts.
As for Danny Sullivan, he would attract Tyrell who capitulated to Benetton who wanted an American driver in the seat for 1983. He had driven in the european formula series prior and answered the call. After finishing in the points just twice, he’d return to CART where he’d land on his feet taking wins immediately. His P4 finish in the championship would have earned him rookie of the year honors except he drove a few races in 1982 prior to Tyrell so Guerrero would take the honors. Whilly Danny spun his wheels in F1, he’d go on to deliver one of the most famous moments in the history of the Indy 500 just 2 years after his forgettable F1 debut with his legendary 1985 “Spin and Win”. At the very last time that Gasoline Alley would be used, Sullivan was officially announced and celebrated as Indy 500 champion in front of the famous green and white barn garages. After 3 top 5 finishes and a P9, he’d finally win his CART title in 1989. He would go on to be instrumental in the red bull search program in 2002.
Another major shift occurred in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s title. After 11 seasons, 14 wins , and 281 points in F1, the Brazilian made a name for himself in CART returning to professional racing after 4 years off. His Penkse PC17 would be the spark that ignited Emerson to former 2x Formula 1 world champion ways. In 1989 he’d take 5 victories including his first Indianapolis 500 title en route to his 1989 CART championship.
This combined with the then CART joining The Automobile Competition Committee for teh United States, or simply ACCUS. The ACCUS was the liaison to stateside motorsport for the FIA. With this, drivers now had a way to protect their superlicenses – something critical to racing in Formula 1. While it’s rare to go back and forth as we’ve seen through Teo Fabi, drivers still wanted to retain their superlicences but before joining ACCUS, it would mean jeopardizing their status driving in the US.
Eddie Cheever would be the next established name to leave F1 for American open wheel racing. At this point, the trend is becoming more apparent as F1 drivers are finding the racing enjoyable and the cars very quick. Cheever got his start as one of the most promising young drivers in the world and proved this in 1977 F2 campaign where he’d be beaten only by René Arnoux earning P2 in a field that included future Ferrari man Didier Peroni & 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg – a title he won after Peroni’s unfortunate accident forcing him to miss 5 races at the end of the season which allowed Keke to pull ahead and win by 5 points.
Cheever would make for another impressive rookie performance at the Indianapolis 500 in 1990 when he’d place 8th. He’d move to IRL IndyCar series from CART where he’d set up his own team and win the Indianapolis 500 driving his car for his team in 1998.
The early 90’s marked a major catalyst for open wheel racing in America and drivers would begin to start and see their careers out in the US. The new wave began Nigel Mansell. For the 1993 season, Michael Andretti would leave CART and take his run at F1 with McLaren pairing Ayrton Senna. Nigel Mansell would dominate the 1992 F1 season at the wheel of the mighty powerful FW14B. Not wanting to drive next to Prost, Mansell left the sport on a high after his only title would finally come in 1992.
He would make the move to CART and pair with former champion Mario Andretti at Newman/Haas Racing team for 1993. Mansell would carry his momentum into the new series where he’d nearly win his very first ever oval race state which just so happened to be the Indianapolis 500. Not mention, He was recovering from back surgery he needed from a crash in practice which would force him to not only miss the Valvoline 200 but also the rookie orientation to the 500 as well as the opening weekend of practice.
Mario Andretti would lead 73 laps finishing in 5th meanwhile his rookie teammate would finish in P3 behind Arie Luyendyk and the champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
Mansell’s contract was unraveled and he’d appear in F1 again filling in for Williams after the tragic passing of Ayrton Senna. Upon his exit, came Jacques Villeneuve for a couple of years. The canadian and son of Ferrari standout Gilles Villeneuve was another example of a driver who had spent time proving himself before arriving on the scene in F1. His rookie season was tremendously successful as he would win rookie of the year awards for both the indy 500 and the season championship. He’d follow that up with another memorable moment in Indy 500 history with his 1995 “Indy 505” win where he’d be given an early 2 lap penalty for accidentally passing the pace car only to storm back to win despite the deficit. Just the confidence Villeneuve needed for his 1997 Formula 1 world championship.
The race included Christian Fittipaldi who was runner up his rookie year after his exit from a solid Formula 1 showing especially in his final 2 years with Ford power.
Villeneuve’s move to WIlliams was well timed as open wheel racing in America would split months after the Indy 500. The future F1 champion looked back on this moment and felt Bernie Ecclestone was “annoyed” by this:
“At that point I was thinking it would be great to make it to F1, but perhaps the rest of my career would be in the States. Remember that’s when Nigel Mansell went to Indy car, and Indy car was starting to be bigger and bigger and bigger, and the viewership was starting to get super-strong. I guess that annoyed Bernie and I think he was very instrumental in separating IndyCar so they would have separate championships. That’s why Indy car racing died – because it was starting to damage Formula 1. But at that point in time in the mid-’90s, being in the States was quite good and the cars were super-quick. If you just look at the Indy 500, it was special…”
To a degree, he was right. Regardless of motivation, open wheel racing hit a speed bump just as it was getting attention on a global scale. While it’s has recovered and then some, it became increasingly more rare for drivers to transition across the Atlantic. Eddie Cheever’s 1997 title was the last for nearly 2 decades for a driver to spend any large amount of time in F1 to win the Indy 500. But it certainly wasn’t the last.
The Turn Of The Century
Between 2000 and 2020, there’s been 4 championships from three drivers who first spent time in Formula 1.
- Juan Pablo Montoya 2000
- Juan Pablo Montoya 2015
- Alexander Rossi in 2016
- Takuma Sato 2017
The 2000 and 2016 were noteworthy as they were both victories from 1st time contenders. Graham Hill’s 1966 Indy 500 win makes for the 3rd time rookies coming from F1 have won the event on a short list of just 10 instances in the long history of the race.
Despite Hill winning & not getting the rookie honors, Montoya and Rossi both would. Only twice more was a former F1 driver given the honors – in 2012 with Rubens Barrichello’s P11 and Fernando Alonso’s P24 in 2017 after he started P5 and lead for 27 laps before his engine gave out.
That 2017 Indy 500 would be the last time since 1993 that foriegn born drivers would sweep the top 3 – and before that it had been since 1915.
Juan Pablo Montoya’s remains the only other active driver currently that has won 2 of the 3 triple crown legs, leaving just the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His 15 years between titles would be the longest between ‘500’ wins. JPM’s history in Karting & lower formulae experience prior to his splash onto the CART scene is often overlooked. But it’s not unique to The Columbian.
Prior to his grueling 6 season battling a prime Michael Schumacher, his scrappy brother as a teammate, and a prime Kimi Raikkonen, he would first win the 1999 CART title. Montoya’s impressive rookie victory was a controversial one that came to the wire – ultimately ending in a 212-point deadlock with Dario Franchitti resulting in a tie breaker that fell to the rookie’s favor as he won 7 races to Dario’s 3. Like JPM, he spent his years excelling in karting.
While Formula 1 is the goal of most young drivers who begin scaling the career ladder, the odds of securing a seat are very low so many talented young drivers move on to other racing interests due to a myriad of factors including funding, timing, and sheer luck. But Franchitti knows this all too well considering he is himself an example. His impressive background includes quad IndyCar series titles (07, 09, 10, 11) and 3 indy 500 ( 07, 10, 12) wins.
Before that though, his earliest major bright spot was his awarding of the prestigious Autosport BRDC Award in 1992 which was then the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award. While the prize for this award has changed, it usually involves some form of a backed test run in F1. But than anything, it’s an award where the prestige matters. The list includes some very familiar names including, but not limited to:
- David Coulthard – 13x GP winner
- Oliver Gavin – 5x Class winner Le Mans & F1 safety car driver
- Jenson Button – F1 World Champion, 15x GP winner
- Anthony Davidson – WEC Champion
- Paul di Resta – 59 F1 starts
- George Russell – Current F1 driver, 26 starts
- Lando Norris – Current F1 driver, 26 starts
In 1994 he would have a strong showing in British Formula 3 placing 4th. He’d cross paths with current F1 drivers and a couple F1 bosses like Christian Horner and Zak Brown (class B). But not all lower formula success is from drivers with european ties. Another driver that shares the same high degree of success at the Indy 500, has ties to British Formula 3 racing – none other than Helio Castroneves.
Like Franchitti, Castroneves is among an elite group of 3x Indy 500 champions. And like Franchitti, the Brazilian showed pace in British Formula 3 able to do one better even placing P3 in 1995 by way of 6 podiums with a Donington Park win.
Furthermore and consistent with the theme, while the two latest Indy 500 champions don’t have Formula 1 experience, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have raced eachother in 2005 in the Renault world series for the inaugural Formula Renault 3.5 series placing 7th and 16th, respectively. This was in the heyday of Robert Kubica where he’d go on to place runner up in Macau and test for Renault in the same year.
Tony Kanaan has been on the scene since his splash in Indy Lights claiming runner up his first attempt then winning the following year. Though he has built a successful career in the american based open wheel series including an Indy car title in 2004 and winning the indy 500 in 2013, people forget about his Italian Formula 3 drive just one year prior to his successful IndyLights arrival in 1995 where he’d earn an impressive 9 podiums for a P5 finish. He was just one year behind Giancarlo Fisichella who won the 1994 Italian F3 title by a landslide and would make his jump to Formula 1 that following year.
Fisichella would himself have to wait patiently for the right car to finally make his own mark which wouldn’t occur until his breakout season in 2003 when he switched from his uncompetitive car at Jordan. His 2002 car with Jordan was less than competitive as proven by equally uneventful results from his rookie teammate, Takuma Sato.
Sato comes from a surprisingly long F1 career where he’d be known for his no surrender driving style. This is evident by his 7 full seasons and 44 points standing on the podium with the Ferrari pair once in his underpowered car. It showed to translate in his 3rd attempt at the indy 500 where he’d make a last lap move for the win that didn’t pan out – but it was commendable nonetheless. Enter 2017 when all eyes were on Alonso, Sato wouldn’t be denied this time and he’d take his first Indy 500 victory. He had to do so battling multiple cars including Max Chilton who is another driver with F1 experience who led most laps at the Indy 500 in 2017.
Chilton left F1 at the same time as the 2016 rookie Alexander Rossi. What some may not know about Rossi is that he was on form in 2015 in Formula 1 beating his teammate matching the team’s highest finish that season just outside the top 10 in his third start. In the turbo hybrid era, P12 for an outside team is highly respectable. Even better, he did it at home. The team would clean house for 2016 meanwhile Rossi would sign with Andretti Autosport for the 2016 season. He would later be offered back that full time seat but would decline – which makes perfect sense considering he would go on to win the Indy 500 on his first attempt in 2016. For someone quoted about their hesitance to oval racing, atleast at IMS, Rossi found comfortability at Indy as he’s yet to finish an Indy 500 outside of the top 10.
Most recently, Marcus Ericsson makes his full time indy debut in 2019 after 5 seasons in F1. After 6 top ten finishes in 2018, he made his made he Indy debut in 2019 – he currently sits in 8th ahead of the indy 500. And while this list is meant to be exhaustive, I’ve surely missed some drivers. Which is half the point. There’s so many drivers that have spent time in Formula 1. And for the most part, they were victims of an ever evolving system that catches talented drivers in a vicious cycle of failing to provide the proper power to showcase just how good they are.
Which brings us back to Fernando Alonso. 2 time Formula 1 world champion. His return to Indy looks a lot more like what we saw from drivers like Ascari, Clark, Stuart, and even into the 70s with the late Peter Revson. There was a time when fluidity across motorsport disciplines was significantly easier. That time has passed, it’s possible, but the door is closing. And The Indy 500 is such a prolific event, drivers will rearrange their entire careers just to win the event. If anything, I see that as a tip of the hat to IndyCar.
But Alonso is the exception – and we may not get the chance to watch a Triple Crown take place again. The Indy 500 and IndyCar in general is becoming less of a novelty and more of a desired place to drive. As someone with deep stock and American open wheel roots but also someone who has based my entire career and adult life to covering Formula 1, I have a foot in both camps. I would love to bridge the gap of the two motorsport disciplines. One of the first steps to doing that is for Formula 1 fans to take a good look at the series across the pond.
The typical “turn right” joke is funny the first time, but not hundreds of times. There’s a considerable amount more to racing on the road courses and one of the more egregious misnomers is the lack of skill oval racing requires.
The Indy 500 is one of the most dangerous tracks you can run in.
Sure, an oversimplification. The point is, it’s a race that requires respect. Some of the best drivers of any category agree. There’s a reason why there are so few Triple Crown winners. One, in fact.
All that said, Fernando Alonso aims to double that exclusive club’s membership to the grand total of 2. If he’s going to do it, he’ll have to have a clinical drive starting from P26.
Stay tuned August 23rd for the greatest spectacle in racing.