For a few brief moments Sunday, Fernando Alonso was on top of the IndyCar world.
The two-time Formula One champion conquered an unexpected engine change and Indianapolis’ usually tricky 2 1/2-mile oval with the fastest four-lap qualifying average in 15 years. Then reality set in when four of the last five drivers went even faster.
But after only eight days on his first oval, the Spaniard couldn’t quibble with the results. He’ll start fifth next Sunday, from the inside of Row 2.
“The car was on the limit,” he said.
“I don’t know if it was possible to be on pole position, but definitely very close. I had an overboost problem in lap 2 out of the last corner, and it was like hitting the brakes. I nearly came to the pit lane because this qualifying run is over with this problem.”
It looked like the 35-year-old had a lot to learn when he started driving in traffic for the first time last Monday. At one point, when two other drivers tried to make it three wide in a first turn Alonso had previously described as narrow, he backed out.
Things started changing when he turned to two former F1 drivers and current teammates with Andretti Autosport – defending Indy winner Alexander Rossi and Japan’s Takuma Sato – for advice.
Whatever they said helped. Alonso moved into contention for the pole after series officials bumped up the horsepower in Friday’s practice. He made a daring qualifying run just to qualify for Sunday’s nine-car pole shootout and in that, he was even better. If Alonso keeps it up, his competitors know he could become the second straight rookie to win IndyCar’s marquee race.
“He’s proving why he’s one of the best in the world,” Rossi said after qualifying ended.
Even under the most extreme conditions, Alonso didn’t fret.
Less than three hours before Sunday’s pole shootout began, Honda engineers were concerned enough with some data from Alonso’s earlier practices that they decided to install a new engine. It took crew members about an hour to make the switch and about another 50 minutes to put the car back together. The crew members pushed the No. 29 car out of the garage with eight minutes left before they had to go through a technical inspection.
“It was stressful in the morning, with the change of the engine, that we were not sure if we were able to go out again or not,” Alonso said. “I think the whole team was working on my car. Crews from all six cars from Andretti, they were working on my car to make it happen.” Once he was on the track, though, Alonso never fretted.
He was the first driver all week to put down four consecutive laps over 231 and found himself in briefly position to become the first rookie pole-winner since Teo Fabi in 1983. Former IndyCar driver Tony Stewart started from the pole as a rookie in 1996 after Scott Brayton, the pole-winner, was killed in a practice crash.
But it wasn’t enough to withstand the ensuing runs from the eventual winner, Scott Dixon, the runner-up, Ed Carpenter or Rossi or Sato.
“Obviously it makes me happy with the reception, the welcome, from the fans here,” Alonso said. “Now, let’s put on a good show for them.”
For the first time in six races, a Team Penske car does not have the pole. And it wasn’t even close.
After Castroneves acknowledged Saturday that the team struggled to find speed all week, the usually powerful Penskes struggled again when speeds went up.
Australian Will Power, who has won three poles this year, had the fastest of the five cars. He’ll start from the outside of Row 3, after going 230.200.
“It was all we had,” Power said after finishing ninth.