By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso was quickly up to speed at the famed Brickyard on Wednesday, blazing through his IndyCar rookie orientation to close in on earning a spot on the Indianapolis 500 starting grid.
Alonso, who has competed in 276 Formula One races and is a double world champion, is an IndyCar debutant and arrived at in Indianapolis needing to pass a rookie test which he did with flying colours by recording a top speed of 222.548 mph (358.156 kph).
It was an impressive debut by the 35-year-old Spaniard considering that Canada's James Hinchcliffe claimed pole position for last year's race with a four-lap average speed of 230.760 mph.
"It felt new to me, it felt a little bit strange driving anti-clockwise at those speeds," Alonso told reporters.
"What I felt in the car was more-or-less what I expected. What is different now is my excitement of the race itself."
Alonso set the motor racing world buzzing when he announced last month that he had been granted clearance by his McLaren F1 team to skip the Monaco Grand Prix and race in the Indy 500 on May 28 in pursuit of the sport's famed Triple Crown - a Formula One title and Indy 500 and Le Mans wins.
McLaren will enter the 101st edition of the Indy with a Honda-engined Indy car run by Andretti Autosport, owned by former McLaren driver Michael Andretti, in the old papaya orange livery of the 1970s.
Alonso looked right at home at the Brickyard as he slipped into the number 29 car and was quickly turning laps of more than 200 mph around the 2.5 mile oval.
The rookie orientation program was the first on-track step for Alonso towards securing a place in the 33 car field. All first-year competitors in the Indianapolis 500 must complete a gradual introduction to the speeds and unique nature of the sprawling track.
During the private test Alonso ran 110 laps but it will be a much different situation on May 28 when he will have to contend with a 33-car field.
"Today was just running alone learning the circuit and all the things that are involved with this technique," said Alonso, who had a run-in with two birds near the end of his session. "I am not driving the car, the car is driving myself around at the moment."
The Spaniard, who is having a difficult F1 season with uncompetitive McLaren, has set his sights on joining Briton Graham Hill as the only drivers to achieve the Triple Crown.
McLaren, the second most successful team in Formula One history in terms of wins, have not won a race since 2012 and are experiencing new lows every weekend with the engine lacking power and reliability.
The change of scenery and a competitive car put a broad smile on Alonso's face as he seemed to enjoy every moment of his first IndyCar experience.
"To be able to feel the respect of the place, the respect of car, the respect of the speed is something or any racing driver is just pure adrenaline," beamed Alonso. "It was a good day."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)