The short answer is “Of course he can.” When you look at his background and the background of former Formula 1 Drivers in the race, it’s obvious. He’s clearly one of the 15 or so drivers that have a strong chance to win the Indy 500.
- He has the right engine-car package: Honda
- He is driving for the right team: Andretti Autosport
- He already had one practice session and will get as much or more practice as anyone else before the race.
But really, all you need to know is that Alexander Rossi, an Indy rookie with a Formula 1 background, won the race last year. With Honda. And Andretti.
What kind of chance does Alonso have? I have not looked at what kind of chance the bookies in the UK are giving him, but I would say about 1-in-10. That is much better than random chance, but probably less that the top 5-to-10 drivers in the race with more experience. He’s less likely than Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Juan Montoya, Etc.
Can he win the pole position? No. And he would be foolish to make a strong attempt at the pole. To win the pole, you have to be able to run the car totally trimmed of downforce. I would not even try. I would target being somewhere in the 14-to-20 range with the idea of mking a safe start and settling in.
What will be the rude awakening that Fernando will run into on day one? Running in traffic at 220 mph. He will likely get his first taste of that May 15th, assuming the Andretti cars do some pack running on the first day. This kind of traffic generates side-to-side forces he has probably not encountered before, as well as front-to-back forces. The front-to-back forces can be really tricky, as a car in front of you can such you up into its wake from about half a straight. And there is a trick to using that force to your benefit.
What is going to be the rude awakening on race day? Pit stops. Specifically, yellow-flag pit stops. Indy 500 yellow-flag pit stops are nothing like Formula 1 pit stops. The main difference is that there is rarely a situation when the whole field comes in at once. This happens at Indy all the time under yellow flag conditions. The fact that Rossi experienced this before the 500 is the single biggest difference between Rossi at last year’s 500 and Alonso at this year’s 500. The shear amount of traffic in the pits and avoiding other cars while not losing positions is the one area where Alonso could lose the race. Look at the incident between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell at the 2016 500 to see what can happen.
Will Honda have the same kind of advantage as it did last year? Dunno. This season, Honda clearly made a step in engine power over last season on Road and Street Courses. But it is no sinch that this will translate to the 500. One thing that won’t change is the aero kits. They are frozen. But the suspension settings and adjustments to the aero are all open. So it’s possible that Chevy/Penske found something that will help them at the 500.
When will we know if Honda has an advantage? The “Carb Day” practice the Friday before the race will be a good indication as to power. Every team gets a fresh, new engine for that practice. All the improvements for the 500 will be included in that “step” or release for both Chevy and Honda. People will look to see how much downforce the cars are running. If the Hondas are competitive with more downforce than Chevy (which is what happened last year), that’s the indication you’re looking for. The other are of advantage is fuel mileage. How far do the cars go on a full green stint? Unlike at road courses, there is no incentive at Indy to pit early or off-sequence. If Alonzo can go as far as Scott Dixon or Will Power, his chances improve. But we won’t know that until the race starts.
Will weather have an impact on Fernando’s chances? Yes. If it’s dry for the next two weeks in Indy, the track will really rubber in, which should help Alonso. And if the weather on race day is similar to what it was during the practice days, that’s also good for Alonso. This is because the track and the cars are both sensitive to temperature and humidity. If a cold front goes through the day before the race and it rains enough to wash the rubber off the track, this would be bad for Alonso. Similarly, if all the practice days are sunny and around 90 degrees, a cloudy and cool race day would be bad for Alonso.
Will weather have an impact on Honda’s chances? Maybe. Ever since the switch to twin-turbos, the Hondas seem to like cooler weather and the Chevys seem to like heat.
How big a factor will good fortune play? It’s rare that the best driver in the best car wins the Indy 500. Last year, Rossi did not have the best car. That was probably either Ryan Hunter-Reay, Townsend Bell (who took each other out) or Carlos Munoz (who got the strategy slightly wrong). And that kind of set of circumstances is what probably needs to happen for Alonzo to win.