INDIANAPOLIS – A puff of smoke marked the spot where Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 dream, and his Honda engine, expired.
As he stepped out of his orange McLaren-Honda Andretti, 300 000 people stood to applaud him, for the double world champion, who skipped Monaco to test himself on the demanding banked oval, drove in a way that suggested he may be the best racer in the world.
Yet it was a day we will remember chiefly for an astonishing 178mph crash from which, somehow, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon emerged unscathed.
We all held our breath with a quarter of the race gone, when Englishman Jay Howard sent Dixon virtually into orbit.
Howard, from Basildon, ran wide at the first turn, losing grip on the non-rubbered part of the track, hit the wall and slid back across into the path of the approaching Dixon.
Dixon’s car went airborne on impact – reaching the level of the catch-all fence – and hit the top of the SAFER (the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier, sending parts of the car flying everywhere.
A lucky photographer, standing nearby, appeared to have landed the picture everyone wanted, but after being struck by some debris, was carried off on a stretcher for his art. Happily, he appeared not to be seriously hurt.
More remarkably, Dixon stepped out of the wreckage unaided. He had been a passenger as his car landed and rolled and was torn to bits so emphatically that barely nothing was left of the Dallara’s rear half.
Flames flashed. Everyone here drew a deep breath of concern, not least those who saw the on-board footage. It made you recoil watching it, and then the picture cut out.
Both Dixon and Howard went for medical check-ups at the Speedway and were initially declared fine, though Dixon returned to have his left ankle looked at. But his very survival was a glorious statement on the improvements made by IndyCar to guard against fatal danger on a track that has at times over the years resembled a bloodbath.
For Alonso’s part, he was fighting in seventh place and for possible victory when, 20 laps from the end, his machinery gave up. The ‘could not finish’ will do nothing to diminish the way he drove all afternoon.
His moves were surgically clean, betraying no hint of inexperience. The only McLaren driver to win the Indy 500, Johnny Rutherford, stared at the screen here for about a minute, silent, and then he said: “Dang, dang, dang”. And that about covered it.
It was another ex-Formula One driver Takuma Sato who won for the first time with a bravura closing few laps of a spectacular race, featuring one ridiculous smash and several smaller one.
In passing, a word of praise for Max Chilton, of Reigate, Surrey, who was leading towards the end, only to finish fourth.
It was deeply ironic that Honda let Alonso down given the Japanese manufacturers were the reason he was in America, to escape their uncompetitive F1 engines.
Alonso was still smiling at the end, saying: “I felt the noise and the engine friction so I backed off. It’s a shame because I felt we deserved to finish and experience the last lap. Who knows where we could have got to?
“The whole thing has been a nice experience. The racing was fun and I am glad to have been here with the best racers in the business. It’s early to decide if I come back, but I feel competitive. I would know what to expect. Thanks to IndyCar, because this has been one of the best experiences of my career.”
Dixon might not have agreed. “It was a wild ride,” said Dixon, who started on pole. “You just hold on and believe in the safety aspects of the car. I’m okay, but I was just a little beaten up there. I’m bummed for the team.”
His wife Emma was a little more graphic in her retelling. “I really didn’t think he was coming home,” she said.