FEATURE BY MIKE LAWRENCE
The news that Fernando Alonso is to miss Monaco to race at Indianapolis has set the collective heart of motor racing aflutter. The American press has been especially delighted since the 500 has lost some of its glitter of late.
Fernando is reported to have his eye on the triple crown of World Championship, Le Mans and Indianapolis, a feat achieved only by Graham Hill, so he is happy. Indianapolis is delighted and so is Liberty Media. Liberty wants another Stateside Grand Prix and Indianapolis is not only FIA approved, but is under new management since Formula One last visited in 2007.
The move gives some respite to Honda which, with Chevrolet, is one of the two designated suppliers of engines to Indycar. The race will be the focus of the sporting world and that will distract from what is bound not to be a sparkling performance by McLaren-Honda at Monaco.
McLaren won the 500 three times in the 1970s but ceased to compete when Ron Dennis took over. McLaren had followed Lotus and Brabham which had shed Indy, and customer cars, as distractions from their main focus.
Although there has been many a transition between F1 and Indycar, Fernando will be the first current F1 driver to race at the Brickyard since Teo Fabi in 1984. At the time, Teo shared with his brother, Corrado, the number two drive at Brabham, then owned by Bernie.
There had been numerous occasions previously when F1 stars had taken part in the 500, but only twice when there had been a clash of dates. One had been in 1965 when Team Lotus had missed Monaco. Jim Clark had won in his Lotus 38-Ford while also running away with the World Championship
Lotus and Ford had a relationship starting with the 1960 Formula Junior season and this had extended to the Lotus Cortina. Winning Indianapolis was a huge deal in the States and Ford's advertising had included comic strips featuring Jim Clark giving advice to wide-eyed youngsters. It is certain that the win influenced Ford's decision to commission the Cosworth DFV engine which, initially, was for the use of Lotus.
There was also the matter of the massive pay day for driver and team. In 1911 Carl G. Fisher, who supplied most automotive light in America, had the oval paved with 3.2 million smooth bricks and announced it would be used for only one race a year with the fantastic prize of 25,000 dollars. At a stroke the 500 became a premier sports event, and also a very profitable one since, as well as the race, paying spectators flocked to see the weeks of practice and qualifying.
The one occasion before then had been 1952 when Alberto Ascari had missed the first World Championship race so he could compete in the second.
In 1938 America had adopted the Grand Prix formula: 3-litre supercharged, 4,500cc unblown. What we now call Indycar was in a sorry state, the national championship consisted of Indianapolis and one other race. When Formula One came into effect, it was 1.5-litre supercharged, 4,500cc normally aspirated. The huge difference in the equivalency was because F1 was a pragmatic appraisal of what was possible.
German teams and drivers had been banned from international motor racing until 1950. What remained were a few French 4.5-litre French cars and prewar Voiturettes. Since F1 and Indycar shared the 4.5-litre option, the 500 was included in the World Championship. That this continued until 1960 was odd,
At the end of 1951, Alfa Romeo retired from F1. That left Ferrari and BRM with current cars and BRM could not be relied on to show up. For 1952 and '53, the World Championship was run to Formula Two (2-litres, 500cc supercharged.) From an historian's perspective it is important to note that there continued to be some Formula One races.
The change of formula left Ferrari with five 375 F1 cars on its hands and Indianapolis was not only a market for these, there was also the possibility of a bumper pay day. The Scuderia's American agent, Luigi Chinetti, was making some headway in selling cars which were little known to the general public while being massively expensive. Chinetti was one of only two men to have won Le Mans three times so was a man of standing, but he had a tough assignment.
On paper the 375 looked impressive. It had won three of the last four Grands Prix of 1951 and might have delivered Alberto Ascari the World Championship save for a poor decision in the last race, Spain. We might know it as a tyre decision, but Ferrari actually fitted smaller rear wheels for the race and the tyres were shredded.
Cars were entered at Indianapolis for Ascari and the 1950 World Champion, Giuseppe Farina, but Farina crashed and damaged his in a minor F1 race in Italy. It could not be repaired in time to catch the boat to America.
Indianapolis had the 'month of May' and Ascari elected to stay with his car and mechanics.
Meanwhile Chinetti had sold three cars to American team owners. In the manner of American racers, these were named for a sponsoring company only Ascari had 'Ferrari' painted on the bonnet of his car. It soon became apparent that the Ferraris were slow compared to the home-spun opposition.
For a start, they carried unnecessary weight in their transmission and brakes. Regular Indy runners used a simple two-speed 'box, one to get off the line, the other to use. Brakes were not for serious retardation, but to set up a car for the corners. Lightweight Halibrand caliper disc brakes had appeared in 1951.
The biggest handicap was lack of torque. In 1952, the supercharged Offenhauser 'four' was already venerable and it would continue to be venerable until its last Indycar win in 1978 - no engine has had a longer competitive career. It was a long-stroke unit which had torque and that was more important than the 50 bhp it gave to the Ferrari V12.
Torque is why Silverstone in the 1950s, without a chicane in sight, was only a medium-fast circuit.
The three privateers who had bought Ferraris jumped ship, leaving Alberto and his mechanics isolated. The Indianapolis pit crew chief had no direct equivalent in Europe and one of the tweaks the top guys used was to use fuel injection in qualifying and carburettors, which gave better fuel economy, in the race.
A few, a select few, also knew about nitromethane. Auto Union had used nitro for its prewar record attempts and then the secret was lost. It was rediscovered by model car enthusiasts who used liquid-fuelled engines in tethered models - cars which ran in a circle attached by a line to a central pylon. These have reached speeds of 200 mph, not scale speeds, actual speeds.
The secret got out to some midget racers and so to a few Indy crew chiefs. Nitro in the mix (fuel was free) was great for qualifying but ruinous for economy in the race itself. The Ferrari crew were not in on the secret.
One person who was in the know was Leslie Hawthorn, a leading English racing mechanic and father of Mike Hawthorn. This goes some way to explaining Mike's sensational performances in the early part of 1952, plus the fact that Mike was a brilliant driver. By 1953 nitro was widely known and Connaught used 30 per cent in sprint races, 15 per cent in longer events.
Ascari qualified 25th fastest but, due to Indianapolis's quirky rules, started 31st on the grid. None of the other Ferraris made the cut and neither did 33 of the 66 entries.
Because Alberto was a superb racer, he ran as high as eighth in the early stages. Fangio was always the first to say that Alberto was the fastest driver of his time, a fact that should be digested by some of the amateur historians who now abound. On lap 40, when in 12th place, Ascari spun out when a wheel hub seized. He was classified 31st.
Ascari's speed, skill and pleasant demeanour won him fans in America, but he was never to return.
The race itself was won by Troy Ruttman in a car designed for loose-surface tracks, though it also saw the debut of the Kurtis Kraft roadster, which was to dominate for several years. Pole was set by a car with a Cummins diesel engine which was also the first time a turbocharged engine had run at Indianapolis.
Ascari had missed the first European race of the World Championship, but he won the rest. Though the Ferrari effort had failed, it had helped to raise awareness of the marque in its most important market. Ferrari also sold three redundant racing cars, over the odds, at a time when the marque still struggled.
After the 500 the standing in the World Championship was 1st. Piero Taruffi nine points (eight for a win, one for fastest lap,) 2nd, Troy Ruttman, eight points.
Ruttman remained the youngest winner of a World Championship race, celebrated in quizzes, until the 2003 Hungarian GP when he was bested by Fernando Alonso.
We can all work out why it satisfies many interests to see Alonso race at Indianapolis. The behind-the-scenes politics do not matter, what matters is that Fernando is back in action. For the first time in years, every enthusiast has a dog in the fight.
Learn more about Mike and check out his previous features, here