15 May 2012
Indy 500: Newgarden top, Alesi passes ROP
The "happy hour" of drafting also seemed to hugely invigorate new boy Jean Alesi. While the Lotus Fan Force United car had certainly picked up speed after the team had got down to some serious tuning-up overnight, it still appeared to be struggling to get over the 210mph mark that Alesi needed to consistently achieve for the third and final stage of the mandatory Rookie Orientation Program. At least, it was until the drafting fun began.
Alesi initially got a tow from the three Penske cars of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe who had been making a habit of practising working together on and off for much of the afternoon. That pulled him over the 210mph limit for the first time, and after that it seemed to inject both car and rookie incumbent with increasing momentum and confidence. By the time Alesi completed his 15 laps over the target speed, he no longer needed a tow. And he was also done with ROP and officially eligible to undertake qualifying and line-up on the starting grid for the Indy 500 on May 27.
"I have heard about the Indy 500 from many of my friends who have raced here over the years, so being here and finally doing it myself is very exciting," said the former F1 driver. "I am finally beginning to understand why they were always so excited.
"Of course, I want to put on a good show for the Indy fans, so I am attempting to stay 100 per cent focused on my task - which is, of course, to make the car go as fast as possible," he added.
"Everything here is very much different from what I have experienced," he admitted, adding: "I am enjoying my time here very much. I am enjoying being able to talk to the fans, to sign autographs and pictures of my race cars from quite a few years ago."
Alesi is the final rookie to pass ROP, at least until Dragon Racing manages to find an engine for the team and get to put Katherine Legge out on track to begin her own orientation. Her team mate Sebastien Bourdais will need to join her for a refresher program after seven years away from US open wheel racing. For the moment, however, both drivers remain sidelined at IMS and the days are ticking down fast, with Lotus believed to be digging in their heels as a result of Dragon's $4.6m lawsuit against them.
In total, 29 drivers were in action on the speedway on Monday for a combined count of 1199 laps. There were three cautions during the day for a total of 31 minutes, with one of them a routine mid-session track inspection. The first of the other two cautions came 75 minutes into the session when Michel Jourdain Jr. crawled to a stop at the entrance to pit road; and the final caution came in the last hour just after Alesi had completed ROP when Graham Rahal's Honda engine died in a big puff of smoke while on a run.
"Unfortunately, we lost an engine, but we'll keep working hard," confirmed Rahal. The engine was the same one he'd had since the start of the season so it was at the end of its life and due for imminent replacement, meaning that the changeover hopefully won't incur any post-Indianapolis grid penalties. It's the first engine expiration seen on track at Indy for some years, after several seasons of frozen specifications and Honda exclusivity made for bullet-proof reliability for the most part.
Jourdain's problem was a simpler affair. "We had a little problem with a fuel pump, but we are still going according to schedule - building up speed little by little and working on getting my confidence back," he said of his return to the speedway after 16 years since his first and only entry into the Indy 500. "We have more changes planned for tomorrow, but for now I am quite happy with the way things are going."
James Jakes was the most dedicated worker of the day with 76 laps under his belt, while Ed Carpenter ran the fewest - just nine laps - before deciding that the set-up changes his team had introduced overnight weren't working out.
Rookie Orientation Program
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
Michel Jourdain Jr.
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