Some of motorsport’s biggest feel-good stories for many years are surely those surrounding McLaren Formula 1 ace Fernando Alonso choosing to miss this weekend’s jewel-in-the-F1-crown Monaco Grand Prix to compete in the clashing Indianapolis 500, America’s biggest and most historic race.
MAY 25th 2017
Famous Five... F1 World Champions who've won the Indy 500
The Spaniard, a double F1 World Champion, had previously expressed a desire to compete at Indy and in the Le Mans 24 Hours in a bid to secure victory in racing’s triple crown, something achieved only by Englishman Graham Hill.
And this weekend marks the culmination of that effort, with the 32-time Grand Prix winner taking on the 500 in a Dallara-Honda for the Andretti team, instead of tackling what would’ve been his 16th Monaco GP, his third for McLaren.
Rookie Alonso caused a further stir by qualifying the #29 machine in fifth place – in the middle of the second row – thereby immediately adding his name to the list of drivers who’ll be gunning for victory in the 101st running of the 500.
Alonso isn’t the first F1 World Champion to have taken on the legendary 2.5-mile Superspeedway, of course, as die-hard fans will know. Conveniently for our regular ‘Famous Five’ slot, five F1 champs won the great race – three of them after conquering F1, two of them before. This, then, is the quintet of versatile heroes who have their names etched on two of the sport’s biggest trophies and who Alonso will be going all out to emulate on Sunday.
The legendary Scot tackled the Indy 500 on five occasions between 1963 and 1967, taking second on his debut in the Lotus 29 – from fifth on the grid, where Alonso will start on Sunday! Clark qualified on pole for ’64 in the quad-cam V8 Lotus 34 but retired with suspension damage after 47 laps. For 1965 it all came good, Clark taking the first win for a rear-engined car, courtesy of the Lotus 38. Another second place in 1966 was followed by an early retirement in his final outing in ’67.
The 1962 World Champion was a last-minute stand-in aboard John Mecom’s Lola for 1966 after Walt Hansgen was killed in Le Mans testing. He qualified mid-pack in 15th and after avoiding the huge first-lap pile-up worked his way up to the front. When Jackie Stewart’s sister Lola expired with a handful of laps remaining, Hill took a famous rookie victory – although Jim Clark thought he’d won, too! Further efforts for Lotus were hampered in 1967 and ’68 by engine and suspension failure respectively.
It seems strange that one of racing’s greatest all-rounders, Mario Andretti, only won Indy on one occasion – in 1969, despite a fiery crash in practice in the Hawk-Ford. The home hero tackled the 500 some 29 times between 1965 and 1994 and came close to several more wins, only to be let down by car trouble, often with a big lead and just a handful of laps to go. The 1985 and ’87 races were particularly cruel for the 1978 F1 World Champion. After taking fifth in his last finish in 1993, for Newman-Haas, he bowed out with an early retirement in his last start 12 months later.
After retiring from Formula 1 at the end of 1980, with two world titles – for Lotus in 1972 and McLaren in 1974 – and 14 Grand Prix wins, the great Brazilian would immerse himself in a second superb career in American IndyCar and its blue-riband Indy 500. He’d tested Johnny Rutherford’s 1974 Indy-winning McLaren M16 and liked it, but opted not to race on safety grounds. A decade on he made his first Indy 500 start, finishing 32nd. After securing second in 1988, the breakthrough came in ’89, aboard a Patrick Racing-run Penske. A further victory came for the main Penske squad in 1993. The Brazilian legend remains the only F1 World Champion to conquer Indy twice.
The French-Canadian, son of F1 folk hero Gilles Villeneuve, mirrored Andretti by tackling Indy before and after his F1 success. His debut came in 1994, when he took a strong second in Forsythe/Green’s Reynard-Ford, just 8.6 seconds adrift of winner Al Unser Jr. Twelve months later, in what was the last 500 before the acrimonious split between CART and IRL, he took a sensational last-gasp win, coming from two laps adrift, to bolster his ChampCar title assault. And his team Green Reynard was wearing the iconic #27 made famous by his Ferrari hero father. A one-off return in 2014 netted a 14th-place finish in a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara-Honda.
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