I watched my first Indianapolis 500 and I was blown away

Last weekend I was one of the 200,000 people in the UK who tuned in to watch the Indianapolis 500. Like the vast majority of those people, it was the first time I had watched it for quite some time; perhaps ever.

The allure of seeing Fernando Alonso tackle a new challenge was irresistable. He is one of the best drivers in the world. Some even consider him among the greatest ever. But last won a World Championship over ten years ago, mainly because he has not had a competitive enough car.

Alonso’s past few seasons at McLaren have been particularly painful to watch. The team’s renewed partnership with Honda was supposed to herald a return to the glory days of Senna and Prost. Instead, it has been more reminiscent of the days of the Honda Earth car. If his engine hasn’t been going bang, it has been going slowly.

Alonso’s announcement that he would be skipping the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix to enter the Indianapolis 500 captured the motorsport world’s imagination. We now had the chance to see Alonso’s magnificent talent unleashed for the first time in years.

Coming back to US racing

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, CART (Champ Car) was one of the most entertaining racing series on the planet. I used to stay up late — really late — to watch the highlights on Channel 5.

But by then the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t part of the Champ Car series because of a damaging split in the US open wheel racing scene. Most of the best drivers and teams raced in CART. But the most historic and prestigious race was part of a different championship. Fans deserted both series.

US open wheel racing has never recovered. When Champ Car became defunct, the damage had already been done. I have never watched IndyCar regularly, although I have kept an eighth of an eye on it from afar.

In fact, I am not even sure I have ever watched the Indianapolis 500, even though I have read a fair bit about it.

So despite having watched CART before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I always prefered ‘road courses’ — circuits with right turns as well as left — to ovals. I had no idea if I was going to be grabbed by the Indy 500.

Mundane Monaco

Motorsport fans have to deal with the fact that two of the three most prestigious events take place on the same late May day. The sun was shining this weekend — something you really should take advantage of. We had a small day trip in the morning before rushing home just in time for the start of the Monaco Grand Prix. I wouldn’t peel myself off the sofa again for almost nine hours.

Monaco is a grand prix where the spectacle is greater than the racing. The prestige comes from its history, but also from its sheer novelty. The cliche says you should compare it to riding a bicycle in your bathroom, or flying a helicopter in your living room.

It’s not that overtaking is impossible. But it is rare enough for overtaking at Monaco to be truly special — something to be thankful for in this era of DRS and toytown tyres.

But as a racing event? Four times out of five it is quite unspectacular.

Monaco wasn’t built for racing cars, yet it is Formula 1’s centrepiece event. It’s the one you’re supposed to watch. It is grand prix racing’s contribution to the triple crown that Alonso is now pursuing.

This weekend’s event saw championship contender Lewis Hamilton start 13th on the grid through a mixture of bad luck and off-colour machinery. Predicted by his boss Niki Lauda to do no better than 8th ahead of the race, Hamilton’s 7th place finish counts as a good day of damage limitation at the office.

Kimi Räikkönen, starting on pole for the first time since 2008, would have been a hugely popular winner. It would have been a great news story for Formula 1 on a day when one of its biggest stars had absented himself for a stateside sojourn.

In the event, Räikkönen plodded around in the lead for the first phase of the race, before being leapfrogged by his faster team mate during the pitstops. Sebastian Vettel went on to win the race comfortably. In truth, it was never a race up front. Ferrari were always bound to favour Vettel with the strategy, no matter how good a story a Räikkönen win would have been.

The race highlight (if you could call it that) was the alarming sight of Pascal Wehrlein’s car up on its side, wedged against the barrier. For all we knew, he could have suffered the worst fate imaginable. To everyone’s relief, Wehrlein gingerly climbed out of the car.

As it became clear that Wehrlein was fundamentally OK, replays showed Jenson Button making as clumsy a passing attempt as you’re ever likely to see. The Brit went for a gap that was never there, tipping the blameless Wehrlein head-first towards the barrier.

Button was the reluctant stand-in for Alonso, making a one-off return in the worst car on the grid. His passing attempt was uncharacteristic of someone with his experience and skill. It was part race-rustiness, part frustration at having been stuck in last place all race long without a hope of overtaking.

You can blame Button’s car. You can also blame the circuit. You could even blame the sport itself.

We can be relieved that Button’s return didn’t have a worse ending. But one thing was for sure: this was not a display of world-class driving.

No driver came in danger of hitting an average lap speed of more than 100 miles an hour.

I felt like an idiot for rushing home to watch this. I should have spent more time outdoors.

Incredible Indy

Tuning into the Indy 500 for the first time in years was a breath of fresh air in comparison. From the start of the race, cars were immediately racing well in excess of 200mph. They would go no slower, except for yellow flags or pitstops.

On Alons-o-vision, we saw the Spaniard gingerly drop a few places at the start. But within a few laps he started gradually climbing his way through the field. He ultimately reached the lead, and for a long phase in the middle of the race he looked like one of the favourites to win.

Alonso was taking the full opportunity to showcase his skill. His overtaking was breathtaking. His defending was incredible. And he was the rookie.

But I began to realise that everyone’s overtaking was breathtaking. Everyone’s defending was incredible.

Seeing cars go three, four, five abreast towards those daunting corners was an adrenaline rush I haven’t felt from watching racing cars for a long time. In F1, Eau Rouge comes close. This felt like seeing an Eau Rouge several times a minute.

The lead changed 35 times in one race. There have been a total of 35 lead changes in the Monaco Grand Prix since 2003.

Monaco was a dead rubber. There were only two real contenders, both from the same team. One of those drivers was always going to be prioritised by their team over the other in terms of strategy. In short, there was no real race.

Watching Indy, I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish. It was impossible to tell who was going to win.

Not only were there great slipstreaming battles right up front, no-one was ever allowed able to get a lead of more than a few seconds. Strategies played a role, but without dominating as they do in F1.

Unlucky Alonso

Back to Alons-o-vision, and beyond the halfway point he had found himself getting bogged down after a restart. The commentator said “Alonso has lost a pile of places”, and my heart sank. Shuffled backwards during caution periods as a result of strategy calls, Alonso faced an uphill struggle now.

That hill was too steep for his Honda engine, which pathetically puffed itself to pieces with 21 laps to go while running in 7th.

The irony of Alonso escaping his wretched Honda F1 engines, only to be let down by his Honda IndyCar engine, was delicious. Alonso’s IndyCar adventure may have been a publicity coup for McLaren, but Honda could have done without this.

Despite the retirement, Alonso had done himself proud. He raced superbly, providing a spectacle that united F1 fans and IndyCar fans.

Indy as a showcase of incredible driving

Meanwhile, the race was still on, and I was still hooked. I have watched oval racing before, but I never felt like understood it until now. It never meant so much until now.

I was blown away to watch Takuma Sato blast round the outside of Helio Castroneves, then hold him off for the win. Sato is one of Japan’s most talented racing drivers, with great backing from Honda. But he had a rather scrappy F1 career. His previous career highlight was taking his Super Aguri wheel-to-wheel with Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in 2007 and beating him.

This weekend, Sato scored an even greater victory over Alonso, under the gaze of an increased contingent of F1 observers. For Honda, it was a good publicity story in the face of two high-profile engine failures during the race.

The person Sato held off, Helio Castroneves, is a name I am familiar with from my days watching CART as a teenager. That was a neat way of connecting the dots for me.

Castroneves had been the primary witness of a horrifying crash between polesitter Scott Dixon and Jay Howard.

As Dixon’s car went airborne, Castroneves’s car bounded underneath. To think it could have been so different, yet he came within two tenths of a second of winning.

After seeing an accident like that, you are left in no doubt just how much bravery is required to race at Indy. Having witnessed this aeroplane crash, these drivers did not modify their behaviour in the slightest. This was proper hairy-coconuts-on-the-table racing.

In the space of a few hours, the Indianapolis 500 has been transformed in my mind. Before it was a curiosity that happens to have heritage. Now I know why it is so prestigious. Suddenly, I get it.

Indy’s lesson for F1

I like to think I am a discering motorsport viewer, not just an F1 nut. I follow all sorts of motorsport events. I dabbled with CART in the past, but IndyCar fell right off my radar. It might make me ashamed to realise that it’s taken the publicity storm of Alonso’s trip to make me wake up to the Indy 500, when I have been reading about its spectacular races for the past few years.

But I had good reasons not to pay attention to IndyCar. It’s because in my formative years the Indy 500 was going through period of deep irrelevance.

It has been a long road since that 1996 split between CART and IndyCar. It has taken 20 years to reach the stage where it felt relevant again — to me at least.

This is a cautionary tale for Formula 1. Grand prix racing has so far avoided a split. But after a decade of aimless tinkering and a severe lack of joined-up thinking, F1 has seen better days. It now faces a crossroads.

The contrast between the humdrum Monaco and the thrilling Indy could scarcely be greater. What is of greatest concern is that it is no longer a surprise that a grand prix might be a less-than-thrilling affair.

It’s true that not every race can be a crowd-pleaser. Great races are to be savoured. But it feels like the joy has been sapped away from F1.

The Indy 500 was three hours of unbridled drama. Watching cars go three wide into those treacherous corners was breathtaking.

Moreover, contrary to my fears, the Indy 500 was very easy to follow. The principles are very simple. Go round in circles, and after 200 laps the car in front wins. Come to think of it, why would it need to be any more complicated?

I didn’t have to think about turgid tyre compounds. We didn’t have to hear about 5 second penalties for someone putting a tyre a few millimetres over the line.

F1 has become complicated and bureaucratic. Races are impossible to follow without having a comprehensive list of what tyres everyone has used, and for how many laps, and which cars happen to be good on which tyre compounds at this circuit in these current temperatures. Genuine overtaking — without DRS — is so rare, and whenever it happens you worry about the driver getting a penalty for somehow doing it wrong in the eyes of the stewards.

If I was watching Monaco for the first time this weekend, I would never have lasted the distance. There is no doubt that Indy was the superior spectacle.

This weekend it became clear to me. F1 has severely lost its way. It has become a motorsport for pencil pushers.

If F1 doesn’t find its feet again soon, it might find itself living through its own 20 year dark patch, just like IndyCar.

In the meantime, I’ll continue watching F1. But I will start paying more attention to what’s going on stateside as well.

1 comment

  1. My entire family sat down in front of the TV to watch Monaco. By half-distance, I was the only one still awake. (I’d assumed this would happen to Mum – she’s a world expert at enjoying TV and taking a nap simultaneously… …but for my dad and brother to do the same said a lot about the race). Even the drivers seemed to get frustrated with the boredom level, and it led to a lot of foolish driving in the last phase of the race.

    Admittedly, I had to follow Indy via Twitter and not TV due to pay deals Indy has made, but I had a lot of trouble following the race, and it felt like only the last 10 laps had any relevance at all. (And this is from someone who happily and successfully follows and enjoys 24-hour endurance races).

    It felt like most of the interest was either Alonso-orientated or about some huge crash that looked a lot more dangerous than the Wehrlein/Button one. Wehrlein’s crash was reminiscent of the Fisichella one in Monaco 2004, so I knew that was going to result in a concussion and back aggravation at worst (the latter only because Wehrlein’s possibly not 100% after the slow-healing winter back injury yet), and yet there was appropriate levels of concern. The Indycar one, on the other hand, looked to my eye about 10 degrees away from a fatality, yet was greeted by raucous cheering and latent complacency. I found that jarring, and off-putting.

    I can understand that having TV commentary would have made Indy much more exciting. But there is still a fair bit that, to me, is lost in translation, making it even less exciting than the boring Monaco race.

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