When F1's Fernando Alonso met NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson

MANAMA, Bahrain — Fernando Alonso was genuinely impressed by the performance of seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson when the two drivers swapped rides at the Bahrain International Circuit on Monday.

After several attempts, Johnson managed to set a time within 0.2s of Alonso’s benchmark in a 2013 McLaren F1 car, while Alonso eclipsed Johnson’s installation lap in the NASCAR by four seconds.

The idea for Monday’s ride swap had its origins in January, when the two drivers met at the Rolex 24 Hours in Daytona, and became a reality on Monday in Bahrain — just one day after Alonso took part in the final F1 race of his career. The idea was simple: Alonso would drive Johnson’s 2018 Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR and Johnson would get a run in a 2013 McLaren MP4-28 — one of the last of F1’s V-8 screamers.

Less than 24 hours after completing the last lap of his F1 career, Alonso was back behind the wheel of an F1 car within the first hour of the event. After watching Johnson shake down his Chevrolet, Alonso returned the favour with three laps behind the wheel of the McLaren, setting a benchmark time of 1:40.203 in the process.

“To be honest, I was supposed to only drive the NASCAR, but it made sense if I was doing the installation lap just to make sure the car was feeling OK,” he said. “I found myself in the cockpit at 11 a.m. this morning after retiring yesterday!”

Although the opportunity was originally pitched as a day of fun for both drivers, running two thoroughbred race cars is a serious business. That much was evident on Johnson’s first outing in the McLaren, as the airflow around the open cockpit lifted the bottom of his helmet up, putting strain on his chin strap.

“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!” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to stop but I think I should…'”

But for every problem in F1 there is always a solution, and in this instance it was to attach a thin perspex windscreen just ahead of the cockpit to redirect the airflow away from the chin of the helmet. Although not ideal, it was fine for a five-lap run, and on his next attempt Johnson was able to push.

“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 round 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.”

Meanwhile in Johnson’s NASCAR, Alonso was becoming accustomed to life without downforce. Also in a car powered by a V-8 — albeit with a thunderous exhaust note rather than a high-pitch scream — Alonso was clearly having fun as he pounded round the familiar venue in unfamiliar machinery. Although live footage of the lap was not available, from the top of the circuit’s control tower it was possible to spot Alonso sliding the car from corner to corner with the rear hanging sideways over the exit kerbs.

“I think I was very far away from a very good lap,” he said. “Driving style, it was still not very clear to me what is the best way to perform a lap.

“I found a lot of problems on braking, because the car has very poor retardation because of the weight of the car and the steel brakes. I think they behave very differently compared to the ones I am used to, and traction, these tyres 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 tyres.

“I didn’t know if it was better to go full throttle and spin the tyres and really move forward or control with the throttle and maybe lose a little bit of performance on exit. So at the end, I think…it is not so clear for me even after one day what will be necessary on these cars.”

Despite far from ideal conditions, by his final run of the day, Alonso had knocked four seconds off the installation lap performed by Johnson in the morning and set a best time of 2:10.830. It wasn’t clear how much Johnson was pushing on his initial lap, but Alonso’s pace in completely unfamiliar machinery impressed those watching on.

“I am trying to convince him he should do a road course race in NASCAR,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown said. “He’s not agreeing to it yet, but I am going to work on him a little longer! He is mega quick and has also never driven anything like it, so I think it shows when you have got world champion drivers and give them a steering wheel and give them a race car, then it doesn’t take long for them to get up to speed.”

And Johnson is determined to get Alonso to an oval to get a feel of a NASCAR in its natural habitat.

“Yeah, he didn’t get a fair shake of experiences today,” Johnson said. “Our cars are heavy and have a high roll centre, so when you can put them on a banked track they have a chance to shine. Dover, Bristol, even some of the banked mile-and-a-halfs, it would really impress him.”

Alonso’s target time for Johnson in the McLaren was 1:40.204, set on a single flying lap at the start of the day. By his final run, Johnson had lowered his personal best to a 1:40.462 using a fresh set of Pirelli tyres — a remarkable achievement for someone who has never raced an open-wheel circuit car in his career.

“It was impressive,” Alonso said. “I think he was really gaining time every run he was doing, and sometimes you put new tyres on these cars for the very first time and you are not able to extract the grip because you miss a little bit the braking point here and there, or maybe you don’t maximise the grip available. But he was able to guess this extra grip that the new tyres is giving to you and extract that grip into lap time, so I was very impressed with that.

“He took it very seriously the test, as I did probably, but I was a little bit busier in the last two or three weeks, and especially at the weekend in Abu Dhabi. But I think we 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 that it was swapping cars, doing a photograph and have one run and that was it.

“We came for a full day of testing. I put four sets of tyres, I think he put three or four sets of tyres, 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 it was close to what they feel normally.”

The main reason for Alonso leaving F1 at the end of this year is to chase other goals in motorsport. So does NASCAR now feature on his horizon?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I am not thinking at the moment on that because I think most of the performance from these cars are made on the experience side and following effects and driving techniques about pushing each other and things like that. I think I am not up to speed on those kind of techniques, so it will require a lot of commitment, and obviously the calendar that they have is so intense, also maybe one off, one day, but not the full calendar.”

Johnson, however, would jump at the chance of another go in a single-seater.

“Without a doubt. 2020 is my last year under contract with Hendrick, and I’ve been approached many times about the Indy 500,” he said. “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships I could put together some road course races in IndyCar. I’d look at anything.

“I’ve done sports-car racing in the past. I’ve finished second in the Rolex 24 a couple of times in the prototype division; I’d love to get back to doing that. Anything’s open. I’m far from done, I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”

And it could well be that Monday’s ride swap leads to more Johnson and Alonso crossovers. Perhaps the symmetry would be too perfect to become reality, but by Monday evening there was talk of the two drivers pairing up at the Rolex 24 Hours next January — one year on from when they first met.

“I would go anywhere to run with him in the same car, absolutely!” Johnson said before a brief pause. “Yes, and the reason I paused is because I have to convince my wife that I have to be gone a few more weeks to work on it, but I think I can get there!”

And while Alonso wasn’t willing to commit another race to his 2019 calendar just one day after leaving F1, another stab at the Daytona 24 Hours is not beyond the realm of possibility either.

“Yeah, potentially it is possible,” he said. “I am still looking at the options together with McLaren as well because, at the end, I am a McLaren driver also next year and the full priority is the Indy 500. So we need to accommodate a few things.”

In other words, watch this space.