Alonso finds comfort zone as Indy 500 pole fight looms

Fernando Alonso (Gallo Images)
Fernando Alonso (Gallo Images)

Washington - Formula One star Fernando Alonso has made a fast adjustment to IndyCars and driving around in circles as the Spaniard prepared for weekend qualifying at the 101st Indianapolis 500.

The 35-year-old McLaren racer, the F1 champion in 2005 and 2006, is skipping this year's Monaco Grand Prix, a race he won twice, to compete on the famed 2.5-mile (4km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in the May 28 classic.

"The more laps I do, the better I feel," Alonso said. "Have been good learning days for me. It's still very new for many of the things that are happening out there, but every lap I feel better in the car, able to feel the setup changes a little bit."

It doesn't hurt that his Honda-powered entry is among six for Andretti Autosport, a lineup that includes defending Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi, his US compatriots Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Japan's Takuma Sato.

"We are six drivers in our team with a lot of experience," Alonso said. "We share. I keep learning also from them. On traffic, it was very good to organize these runs with the team. They take care of me. I felt that. So I will try to keep learning."

Alonso surpassed 231mph (371.7 km/h) on Friday before rain arrived as the team tested aerodynamics for time trials after a focus on race setups during practices.

"It was definitely a new experience because you run at those speeds for the whole lap. It's not one instance on the lap that you reach 220-230 mph like we do," Alonso said.

"You feel the car, how it handles behind another car, how close you can be to the other car on the corners. But when you arrive to the race day, it's going to be very different. There are not friends anymore."

Alonso made it clear he's not in Indianapolis to be a tourist and merely compete as a novelty act.

"I think this is probably the biggest race in the world," he said. "To have the opportunity to experience this event is something that I think any racing driver should have the opportunity to feel. And, yeah, try to win it."

France's Simon Pagenaud leads the IndyCar season points race with 191, 10 ahead of New Zealand's Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner and one of seven past champions in the 33-car field.

Brazil's Helio Castroneves will try to match the all-time record of four Indy 500 triumphs, having taken the chequered flag in 2001, 2002 and 2009.

Other past champions entered include Americans Buddy Lazier (1996) and Hunter-Reay (2014), Brazil's Tony Kanaan (2013), Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015).

France's Sebastien Bourdais was the first to crack 233 mph in Friday's practice with Hunter-Reay and Sato close behind.

Indy's unique qualifying format requires all cars to complete a four-lap qualifying run Saturday with the quickest nine cars advancing into Sunday's Fast Nine Shootout, which decides pole position as well as the complete grid for the first three rows.

Cars 10-33 on Saturday's speed chart will make the field but all times are erased and each car must make another four-lap run Sunday to determine the grid for the last eight rows.

Then comes Sunday's pole showdown, with each of Saturday's fast nine getting one chance at a four-lap run to take the pole, in order from slowest to fastest from their Saturday runs.

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