Fernando Alonso’s shock announcement that he will compete in this year’s Indianapolis 500 in a Honda-powered McLaren-backed Andretti Autosport machine is not only exceptionally cool, but also harks back to a golden age of racing heroism and the need for a challenge.
Between 1950 and 1960 the Indy 500 was actually a round of the Formula One World Championship, and since then plenty of drivers have tackled the gruelling 220mph+ banked oval challenge before or after their tenure in F1.
Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya and Emerson Fittipaldi have all tasted the milk and won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the hallowed ‘month of May’, but only a handful have combined the rigours of the F1 calendar with the month-long qualifying schedule and general culture and speed shock of the Indy 500.
Here are a few of the best that have swapped their F1 day job for the challenge of Indianapolis…
- 5 Indy 500 starts – winner in 1965
- F1 World Champion: 1963 and 1965
Jim Clark won the F1 World Championship twice in the 1960s and half a century on from his death in 1968 the Scot is still considered one of the finest ever drivers of a racing car. The fact he died at Hockenheim in a Formula 2 race underlines his place in an age when the restless spirit of the world’s finest racing drivers led them to compete in whatever ride was going.
In 1965, racing in his third Indy 500 and after some dazzling qualifying and race pace on the unforgiving Indianapolis oval in his Lotus, Clark and became the first British driver in the modern era to win at Indianapolis, leading 190 of the 200 laps. That year Clark (like Alonso will) missed the Monaco Grand Prix, but it didn’t do him any harm. Back in the world of F1 Clark went on to win five races on the bounce to claiming his second World Championship.
- 3 Indy 500 starts – winner in 1966
- F1 World Champion 1962 and 1968
Fernando Alonso has made no secret he wants the ‘triple crown’ – the feat achieved by taking victory at the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indy 500. So far Alonso has Monaco silverware to his name, but Graham Hill is the only driver ever to have achieved this incredible feat.
In 1966 driving a Lola T90-Ford the moustachioed Hill narrowly and controversially won at Indianapolis as a rookie, one year after his compatriot Jim Clark took the victory. Hill then flew back from Indiana climbed back into his BRM and finished the F1 season a respectable 5th place in the World Championship standings.
- 1 Indy 500 start – winner in 2016
A few years ago Alexander Rossi looked like being the most promising American to take on the challenge of F1 since Mario Andretti in the 1970s. However, despite some impressive donkey work with backmarkers Caterham and Marussia it seemed the Californian was destined to become a nearly man of racing. In 2016 that all changed…
Rossi had been the top rookie on the grid, qualifying 11th for the 2016 Indy 500, and in the race’s closing stages, with barely any fuel left, he and his Andretti Autosport crew pulled off a brilliant strategy and took an outrageous win as their rivals all had to refuel. A pretty impressive feat for Manor Marussia’s part-time test driver and an Indy rookie.
- 2 Indy 500 starts – best finish 3rd
- F1 World Champion 1992
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Nigel Mansell courted the kind of frenzied adoration from the British public usually reserved for chart-topping pop stars. With a flat cap and moustache combo that would be considered the height of hipster couture these days, Mansell won the F1 Championship, immediately quit, went to North America the following year, won the IndyCar Championship and nearly won the Indy 500 and in an audacious smash and grab British invasion.
In 1994 Mansell would combine Williams F1 duties in the wake of Ayrton Senna’s death with IndyCar duties, and at that year’s Indy 500 Mansell failed to better his rookie result of third and ended up in a bizarre accident with a backmarker ensuring an ignominious end to a stunning couple of years at the Indy 500.
- 4 Indy 500 starts – best finish 4th
- 1967 F1 World Champion
In the same year Denny Hulme won the F1 World Championship, the gruff but friendly Kiwi also notched up a stellar result at the 1967 Indy 500 and with it took the Rookie of the Year award. Hulme was joined in the rookie ranks by another F1 star that year in the form of future F1 champ Jochen Rindt.
Throughout his career Hulme raced in F1, F2, IndyCar, Touring Car, CanAm and endurance races all during the same season and enjoyed a long relationship with McLaren. His four runs at Indianapolis included a brace of fourth places underlining his stunning pace and versatility.
The fact that like Jim Clark he managed to juggle the deadly demands of oval racing with the equally deadly demands of F1 and still become champion affirm his place among the greats of motor racing and embodies a restless spirit and need for speed that isn’t easy to find these days.
Perhaps Alonso is close to finding this in his decision to ditch the day job at Monaco for a shot at immortality in Indiana…