By: Chris Medland
Fernando Alonso was impressed by Jimmie Johnson’s performance on his first time in a single-seater when he tested a McLaren Formula 1 car in Bahrain.
The two champions swapped cars during the event on Monday, with Alonso driving a NASCAR Cup car for the first time, while Johnson got behind the wheel of a 2013 McLaren MP4-28. After training laps in a McLaren road car, Johnson then shook down the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports machine, posting a 2m14s lap time.
Although Alonso wasn’t scheduled to drive the F1 car — having only started his final grand prix on Sunday in Abu Dhabi — he then completed a flying lap and set a 1m40.204s for Johnson to try and better. After an initial delay when Johnson’s helmet was lifting while in the F1 car, both got down to carrying out five-lap runs, with Johnson eventually posting a best lap just 0.2s off Alonso’s time, something the two-time F1 champion described as impressive.
“I think he was really gaining time every run he was going out,” Alonso said. “Sometimes you put new tires on these cars for the very first time and you are not able to extract the grip because you miss the braking point a little bit here and there and maybe you don’t maximize the grip available, but he was able to guess this extra grip that the new tires is giving to you, and extract that grip into lap time so I was very impressed with that.
“He had fun. He took the test very seriously, as I did — probably I was a little bit busier in the last two to three weeks and especially the weekend in Abu Dhabi, but I think both came here with the intention of having fun, yes, swapping the cars, yes, but not a normal swap like we saw in other occasions when it was swapping cars, doing a photograph and have one run and that was it.
“We came for a full day of testing, I used four sets of tires, I think he used three or four sets of tires, and we were swapping the cars, having fun, but also we wanted to feel the new environment in a representative way and in a speed that we could feel something that was close to what they feel normally.”
Johnson admitted the performance of the F1 car exceeded his expectations despite having time to prepare on the McLaren simulator at the team’s factory last week.
“It was mind blowing,” Johnson said. “The sensation of speed… Clearly the speed is so high. The simulator was a really nice experience, a great visual aid, but to have the wind moving by and the sensation of speed and the G-forces, it takes a little while to absorb that and have the newness of that go away and focus on what you’re doing.
“I felt like every time I went out, my surroundings moved slower and it was easier to piece together my braking points. Literally on the first outing, my helmet was trying to leave my head, and I was staring at the microphone in my helmet, it was so high! I was like, ‘I don’t want to stop but I think I should…’
“I got my helmet more under control and then it was really my eyes trying to find their way far enough ahead and far enough around the turns. At the end I really quit focusing on the braking markers themselves and was able to look at the apex and had an idea of when to hit the brakes and was putting together some good laps. It was fun.”
On getting so close to Alonso’s time, Johnson says the whole day showed him how talented the Spaniard is behind the wheel of any car.
“Inside, it just feels good to be able to go out there and be able to be in the same second bracket as him, it’s very cool. I didn’t know how close I would get — the racer in me was of course focused on that and I was straight away asking: ‘What was his lap time? Can I look at the data and try and piece that together?’
“He had that same opportunity in my car to look at that data and go after it. I honestly think at the end of the day I got a way better swap experience than he did. If we could come for a day or two and get our gearing dialed in and do some suspension changes, with the proper tire, the car could have been quite a bit faster.
“But I rode with him in a car in Abu Dhabi in hot laps and again today, and he should be a dirt racer! He loves to be sideways and smoking the tires and every time I saw him in the Cup car the rear tires were smoking, even on our little laps after for the cameras. I don’t think he was ever straight on any of those laps either! He’s a very talented driver and he can drive anything.”
Alonso admitted the NASCAR was tricky to get to grips with, despite bettering Johnson’s one lap time by setting a 2m10.830s in the No. 48 Chevrolet.
“I think I was very far away from a very good lap,” Alonso admitted. “Driving style, it was still not very clear to me what is the best way to perform a lap. I found a lot of problem on braking; the car has very poor retardation because of the weight of the car and the steel brakes behave very differently compared to the ones I am used to.
“And traction, these tires with the amount of power that those cars have, it is very difficult to manage so in first gear, second gear, third gear you are still spinning the tires, and I didn’t know if it was better to go full throttle and spin the tires and really move forward or control with the throttle and maybe lose a little bit of performance on exit.
“So in the end, I think it is not so clear for me even after one day what will be necessary on these cars.”
The pair signed off with filming duties in each other’s cars before performing donuts on the pit straight at the Bahrain International Circuit.