IndyCar — What makes a rookie outstanding at Indianapolis

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Ever since Monday night when the Rookie of the Year award for the 2017 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was given to two-times Formula 1 World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso, the soc meds (pronounced sōSH-mēds I am told), and especially Twitter, have been ablaze with debate and outrage with many believing the honor should have been bestowed to Ed Jones. The Rookie of the Year honor is bestowed upon the rookie who, in the opinion of selected media who cover the Verizon IndyCar Series throughout the season and have a history of doing so, outperforms his or her fellow rookie competitors in four distinct areas:

  • Driver skill,
  • Sportsmanship,
  • Accessibility and conduct throughout the month,
  • Finishing position.

Sadly, I did not get a ballot. If you want to learn more about the process, Tony DiZinno, writer for NBC Sports, wrote a fantastic piece, Inside the 2017 Indy 500 Rookie Voting Process, that explains all the gory detail as well as explaining his reasoning for his vote. Spoiler Alert: He voted for Ed.

Tony wasn’t alone in his vote, although he was certainly the minority. There were opinion pieces throughout the motorsport media landscape questioning the decision of their fellows including articles in Autoweek, the Indianapolis Star, Motorsport.com, and Autosport. Many of these are really just saying the same thing, but be sure to read Tony’s article. It’s by far the most in-depth article I’ve seen on the topic.

So where do we fall on the matter? I won’t presume to speak for John or Tom, so you’ll have to listen to this week’s FBC indi for their opinion, but as for myself, I would have chose Ed Jones, although now that my initial outrage has subsided, I understand why most voted for Alonso. While Ed Jones is certainly talented, he is the reigning Indy Lights champion, and he’s enjoyed success long before coming to North America to race, Fernando Alonso is arguably the best driver on the Formula 1 grid today, even if his Honda-powered McLaren is a giant dumpster fire of a car. In their demonstration of driving prowess at Indianapolis, though, the differentiation between the two drivers is more difficult. Both showed great skill, race craft, and car control. In this regard, I think Alonso still edges Jones. Alonso exercised brilliant race craft throughout his 179 laps, and executed some amazing outside passes which are tough at Indianapolis, especially in Turn 1.

On the sportsmanship front, it’s a wash. Both drivers carried themselves with professionalism and respected their fellow competitors both on and off the track. Helio Castroneves, during his Award Banquet speech, gave Ed Jones a lot of credit for the way he raced Helio and Takuma in the closing laps, saying, “I have to say he did a very good job. When we ran side-by-side, he was very smart. I have to say that you drove not like a rookie, to be honest, so congrats.” That’s huge praise from one of the 500’s most experienced and successful competitors, but Alonso also exhibited humility and respect for his teammates and competition. Like Jones, he raced hard but clean, and he worked well and closely with his Andretti teammates.

[singlepic id=2023 w=300 float=left]The accessibility question is tough. A lot of what skews this assessment is the difference in expectations. No one doubted that Ed Jones would ever be unavailable for the fans or the media, and he wasn’t. During qualifying, Jones was simply hanging out on his pit cart while the sea of writers, photographers, and fans rushed by him to surround Alonso. Many, myself included, expected Alonso to be a bit aloof coming from the world of Formula 1 where fan access is no where near as liberal as it is in IndyCar. The two-times world champion proved all of us wrong as he was relaxed, open, and at ease, making himself easily available to any of the media, fielding far more questions during press conferences, and enjoying the interaction with the fandom. I will say that I am also proud of the Indianapolis Fandom for being respectful of Alonso’s space, and perhaps that helped his openness and relaxed attitude toward them in return. There was no scrum or surge of humanity assailing him while he was on pit lane for qualifying or in the garage area working with his teammates and engineers. So as far as the actually accessibility of the two rookies, it’s a toss-up, but when you factor in the extra pressures and the expectations ahead of his coming to Indianapolis, I think the nod does have to go to Alonso.

The finishing position at first seems black-and-white with Jones finishing in 3rd, and Alonso retiring on Lap 179 with a blown Honda motor (how apropos). That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Alonso out qualified Jones starting in the middle of Row 2 whereas Jones started in the middle of Row 4. Alonso also lead 27 laps, third most behind Max Chilton and teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, whereas Jones never saw the lead position all race long. Jones did have to overcome a lot of adversity to achieve his third-place finish that Alonso did not. His Dale Coyne Racing machine was struck with debris during the Lap 53 incident between Dixon and Howard, damaging his rear wing and poking a hole in the floor of his car. Replacing that rear wing assembly send him to the back of the field. After working his way back tot he front, he had another set-back as more debris punctured his nose cone.

[singlepic id=2290 w=300 float=right]“We were running in the top 10, 11, for most of the first half. Then when Dixon had his crash, thankfully those guys are OK, but I ran over some debris. It damaged the floor and also the rear wing. We had to change the rear wing. That sent me to the back of the field. We had to claw our way back up again. Then we got some luck back. The last yellow, we actually pitted right before it, so it put us near the front. But then I had some bad luck again. I actually damaged my front wing. We had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. Also created a lot of drag. That meant I was really good in the corners catching up to other cars, but it was difficult in the straights. I couldn’t pull up to them. We lacked that straight line speed for, I’d say, the last 40 laps. It was really hard for me to defend or even attack, which was really frustrating because I think we had the car to win today.” — Ed Jones, No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing

Alonso ran up front most of the race and without any drama, excepting for his fantastic passing maneuvers in Turn 1 and Turn 3, and had his engine held out the outcome of the race may have been very different. However, at the time of Alonso’s Honda grenading and dumping its oil on the track, Jones was five positions ahead of Alonso after clawing his way back from the rear of the field with a damaged race car.

Here is the Official Box Score.

I’ll fully admit to as much immediate shock and dismay as the rest of the social media universe, however, when you really reflect on the whole Month of May, it’s not quite as clear cut as many wish it to be. I think if I had a ballot, I would have selected Ed Jones, but it must be said that Alonso did more to raise the visibility of the Indianapolis 500 this year, both domestically and especially internationally, than any driver since Nigel Mansell in 1993. Given how much the series and the event have benefited from Alonso’s participation, I can’t discredit the choice for Rookie of the Year that was made. It’s a fair call if not a popular one.

What say you? Should Jones or Alonso have won Rookie of the Year? Defend your answer. (It’s summer, but I’m still a teacher at heart.)

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3 Comments on "IndyCar — What makes a rookie outstanding at Indianapolis"

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Kelly O
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I understand both sides of the argument. From a purely sentimental “dude needed a win this year” perspective, I’m glad Alonso won it, and I think my heart broke a little when yet another Honda engine gave up on him. Ed Jones did a good job. Any other year he would have won it, but I think the prestige of the Formula 1 champion forgoing arguably their biggest race of the year to participate, doing an amazing job qualifying, and acting like he was having the time of his life the two weeks he spent at Indy were just too… Read more »
sejarzo
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sejarzo

I will simply cut and paste my comment from the piece on racer dot com re the qualification difference:

Most folks don’t realize how little difference there is between cars in the top 15. Saturday total qual times: Jones 2:36.7417, Alonso 2:36.4985. Difference of 0.2432 sec/4 laps, .0608 sec/lap. 230 mph = 337 ft/sec, so 0.0608 x 337 = 20.5 ft per lap…just 4 ft more than the length of a DW-12. My take? It’s not as if Alonso blew away Jones’ qual performance, considering how much of that is a decision by the engineers–not the driver–on downforce.

oregonwings
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oregonwings
As I stated to you and others on FB, Ed Jones did a fabulous job, but I can see it go either way between him and Alonso. Fernando had zero, zilch, nada oval experience prior to a few weeks ago. Ed on the other hand came up through Indy Lights and also ran at Phoenix earlier this year. Alonso never drove an IndyCar before with it’s lack of power steering, different braking and power application, etc. He never worked with the “tools” before (weight jacker, adjustable anti-roll bars, etc.). Ed has been amazing this season especially with him driving for… Read more »