Formula One driver Fernando Alonso knows his “career objectives are very ambitious.”
“I intend to win the Triple Crown of the greatest races: Monaco, Indy, and Le Mans,” the Spanish racing driver told the New York Times (paywall). Those are the biggest races in motorsport—the jewels of Formula One, IndyCar, and endurance racing, respectively. Only one driver in history, Graham Hill, has ever done it—and that was in 1972.
Alonso, who is regarded as one of the greatest active Formula One drivers, already has one notch in his belt. He won the Monaco Grand Prix back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. This year, he’s skipping the iconic Formula One circuit to race in the Indianapolis 500, which is held on the same weekend in the US. He qualified in fifth place for the race last Sunday—not bad for someone who had never driven an IndyCar until this month. A win on Sunday (May 28) would mark two of the three legs Alonso needs for the Triple Crown.
Moving from one breed of motorsport to another is easier said than done, however. Alonso is far from the only Formula One driver to make the jump to the uniquely American motorsport of IndyCar. He follows drivers like Nigel Mansell, Takuma Sato, and Juan Pablo Montoya. But few have managed to master both.
Aside from Hill, Montoya is the only other person to win at both Monaco and the Indianapolis 500. He has not yet made a run at Le Mans, the final leg of the Triple Crown. But driving is driving, right? Why is it so hard?
The shift is challenging, in part, because the racetracks can feel completely foreign to a driver who’s accustomed to racing on one versus the other. F1 takes place in countries around the world, like Sochi, Russia; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Austin, Texas. Each circuit is unique, and usually has a mix of long straights, flowing curves, and tight corners. In competition, drivers race around the track for as many laps as it takes to exceed 305 km (190 miles).
The creme de la creme, the Monaco Grand Prix, is the one exception; the race is slightly shorter in distance and consists of 78 laps. But it’s considered the most challenging circuit on the calendar because of its narrow streets, tight corners, and tunnel that drivers have to navigate. Because of the corners, the cars typically don’t go above 200 miles per hour.
IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500, meanwhile, takes place on a oval track in the US state of Indiana. It’s 2.5 miles long and has four left-hand turns that are banked at 90-degree angles. It essentially requires drivers to hurl themselves down the track at speeds of 230 mph, turn left just before hitting the wall of the track, and then repeat that over and over again until they’ve completed 200 laps for a total of 500 miles. It’s thrilling and rather dangerous to participate in. It can also be really jarring for drivers who aren’t used to the constant counterclockwise motion.
“One of the biggest things that I suffered with initially was sickness, especially on the ovals, getting dizzy,” Nigel Mansell, a legendary F1 driver who transitioned to IndyCar racing in 1993, told CNN. (Other IndyCar races are held on oval tracks, too, or on street and road courses like in F1.) “You get out of the car after 10, 15, maybe 20 laps and you couldn’t walk straight. I found it very difficult.”
Mansell must have overcome the sensation eventually, because he went on to win championship titles in both sports. (He also finished Le Mans in 2010.)
Another big difference between F1 and IndyCar is the cars themselves. Gearheads love F1 because the motorsport is all about the vehicles, and each team crafts its own. There are regulations the cars must adhere to, but manufacturers have a lot of freedom to make their own custom designs. They’re much more high-tech than IndyCars and cost a great deal more. Teams spend the most on aerodynamics because it’s key to the sport.
Mercedes and Ferrari have two of the best cars on the track this year, and both teams have consistently placed at the top of the podium. Alonso’s McLaren-Honda vehicle, on the other hand, just hasn’t been able to keep up. The driver, who left Ferrari at the end of the 2014 season, has yet to score any points in the five races so far this year. That’s partly why he’s keen to trade another chance at Monaco for the Indianapolis 500.
At least there, he might actually have a shot at winning. All of the teams in the Indianapolis 500 use the same basic car: A spec Dallara chassis. There are two engine manufacturers teams can pick from, Honda and Chevrolet. And each can develop its own aerodynamics. In IndyCar, Alonso’s Honda engine is actually competitive, unlike in F1.
The other reason Formula One drivers have historically had a hard time competing in the Indianapolis 500 is that the races have been held on the same weekend every year since 1974. (For a time before, in the 1950s, the Indianapolis 500 was actually part of the F1 calendar, according to the Times.) That’s made it impossible for drivers to compete in both races in the same year. And F1 isn’t eager to see any of its drivers, especially one as talented as Alonso, leave the sport.
But with lackluster pacing this year, the new chief executive of Alonso’s McLaren team, Zak Brown, was reportedly able to negotiate a deal to get Alonso in the Indianapolis 500. “It only became possible this year,” Alonso told the Times. “It is a unique situation. In F1 this year, I am working with an underperforming car. Winning at Monaco is not possible, but winning at Indianapolis certainly is. So why not try?”
Should Alonso prevail at the Indianapolis 500 this weekend, the next and final leg of his Triple Crown journey will be Le Mans, which is a race unto itself.
While Monaco is about sprinting, and IndyCar is about conquering high-speed cornering, Le Mans is all about endurance. The race takes place over a 24-hour period near the town of Le Mans, France and it’s as much a test for the vehicles, which need to be reliable and fuel-efficient enough to survive the long race, as it is for the drivers. Competitors typically race for more than two hours at a time—the limit for an F1 race—before another driver can step in to relieve them. Three drivers share each vehicle. And together, they cover more than 3,000 miles in a single day.
That’s six times the length of the Indianapolis 500, and 18 times longer than Monaco.