Alesi secures unlikely Indy 500 seat
9 May 2012
With all the rumours, twists and turns in the story of Jean Alesi's hoped-for Indianapolis 500 début later this month, the story has nonetheless managed to still take everyone by surprise with a last minute twist.
Lotus Motorsports Group confirmed on Tuesday that it had signed a deal to put Alesi into the cockpit of a Lotus-engined entry with Firestone Indy Lights team Fan Force United for the 96th running of the event.
"We've been talking about this race for a long time, and trying to find the right team to go with," said 47-year-old Alesi, a veteran of 13 seasons of F1 competition. "I'm very happy to be joining Fan Force United. Lotus believes it's the right place for me to be, and I trust the team completely and am sure we will do a super job."
"To date, Jean has never driven an IndyCar and never raced on an oval," said Lotus in a press release. "However, he has spent many hours on Dallara's state-of-the-art simulator, where he's been honing his technique, getting a handle on differing IndyCar setups, and driving in a variety of conditions.
"It's going to be very interesting to see how far natural skill can get him," added the statement.
After the withdrawal of Newman/Haas Racing from the Indy 500, which had been set to support the French-Sicilian former F1 driver's first oval appearance in the "greatest spectacle in motor racing" on May 27, the prospects of Lotus' brand ambassador making it onto the grid for the race appeared to be rapidly fading.
Lotus would not disclose the financial terms of the latest arrangement, but confirmed that Swiss watchmaker FP Journe - Alesi's personal sponsors - were part of the deal. However, even with a rumoured funding package totalling in the region of between half and three-quarters of a million dollars, the driver found it impossible to open doors at the last of Lotus' regular IZOD IndyCar Series teams HVM Racing.
"It was so late and it didn't feel comfortable and I didn't have enough manpower," said HVM team owner Keith Wiggins. "I didn't want to detract from Simona's effort," he added, referring to the team's regular driver Simona de Silvestro.
With the acrimonious collapse of Lotus' engine supply contract with Dragon Racing, Alesi's chances of entering this year's race seemed over until the emergence at the weekend of a last-minute hook-up with the Firestone Indy Lights team.
Fan Force United team owner Tyce Carlson is himself a former Indy Racing League driver with 30 starts in the series, including two Indy 500 appearances. His team already has two cars entered for the Freedom 100 support race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month, with Emerson Newton-John (nephew of actress/singer Olivia Newton-John) joining series regular Armaan Ebrahim for the event.
Carlson has made no secret of wanting to follow in the footsteps of other successful Indy Lights teams such as Sam Schmidt Motorsports in moving up to the full IZOD IndyCar Series in due course, and had already employed veteran mechanic and former team owner Greg Beck with expansion in mind.
Now with Lotus in urgent need of a partner for the Indy 500, the opportunity to make its IndyCar début was clearly too good for Fan Force United to pass over.
Alesi is now expected to join other series rookies including fellow F1 graduate Rubens Barrichello at IMS on Thursday to undergo the Rookie Orientation Program that all oval newbies must pass before being eligible to run in qualifying for the Indy 500.
"I feel ready for the Indy 500, but also I am very happy to be doing the rookie test," said Alesi. "This will give me time to gain confidence and the feeling for the car and the track."
The formal Opening Day of track activity at the 2.5-mile speedway is on Saturday, with qualifying for the Indy 500 taking place over the following weekend.