CONCORD, N.C. – Before they traveled across the world to swap cars at Bahrain International Circuit, both Jimmie Johnson and Fernando Alonso shared that their No. 1 priority was to have fun.
It’s safe to say that goal was accomplished.
“It’s a huge honor to have this opportunity,” Johnson said following Monday’s momentous car swap. “It was literally the experience of a lifetime.”
After months of planning and anticipation, the two drivers with nine championships between them were able to tackle the challenge of a brand-new race car for a full day of testing, and they closed it out in fitting fashion – with some burnouts on the track.
The experience was, in a couple words, “mind-blowing.”
“The braking is just insane. I mean, you hit the brakes and you literally lose your vision at max G-force, it’s so high. And at the end of the braking zone your vision comes back and your eyes focus and you can see the corner,” Johnson said of piloting the Formula 1 car. “Literally the first outing, my helmet was trying to leave my head and I was staring at the microphone, my helmet was up so high. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to stop, but I think I should.’”
After sorting out his helmet situation, Johnson was able to return to the track and began to put together some laps he grew happier and happier with.
“I felt like every time I went out, my surroundings moved slower and it was easier to piece together my braking points,” he said. “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.”
He noted that his trip to the McLaren Technology Centre the previous week to utilize a simulator was a crucial aspect of the car swap experience. While he still had to adjust to the sensation of the speed and the wind rushing by him in the actual car, he was able to take what he learned in the simulator and put it to the test right away.
“Sure enough, we got to the track and that training in the simulator I think really helped him because he was kind of prepared for the habits,” said McLaren’s Mark Temple, who served as Johnson’s engineer for the day.
“It was literally the experience of a lifetime.”Jimmie Johnson
Watching Johnson in the Formula 1 car, Alonso couldn’t help but be impressed by what he saw from the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.
He noted in particular that he was struck by how quickly Johnson was able to extract the extra grip a fresh set of tires provided and capitalize on the racetrack.
“Impressive,” Alonso said. “I think he was really gaining time every run he was going out.”
Both drivers noted that after each run, they were quick to debrief with one another to help provide useful information for the next run.
“Impressive. I think he was really gaining time every run he was going out.”Fernando Alonso on Jimmie Johnson
Driving the No. 48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Alonso said Johnson’s advice was crucial, particularly as he battled a lack of grip on the track at Bahrain International Circuit.
“I think I was maybe far away from a very good lap. Driving style, it was still not very clear to me the best way to perform a lap,” the two-time Formula 1 world champion acknowledged. “I didn’t know if it was better to go full throttle and really spin the tires and move forward or control with the throttle and maybe lose a little bit of performance on exit.”
Nevertheless, Johnson was equally impressed by his fellow racer as he watched him take on a style of race car brand-new to him.
No. 9 team crew chief Alan Gustafson, who made the trip to serve as the crew chief for the No. 48 Chevy, recognized the difficult task Alonso had in front of him behind the wheel of the powerful NASCAR race car and walked away with a lot of admiration for what he was able to do.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work around some really talented guys, and certainly he’s one of them,” Gustafson said of Alonso. “It always is impressive to see how effortless those guys can make it look and how effortlessly the speed comes.”
Johnson joked that with the way Alonso handled the car, he’d make a great dirt racer.
“He loves to be sideways and smoking the tires,” Johnson laughed. “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. So, he’s a very talented driver.”
“It always is impressive to see how effortless those guys can make it look and how effortless the speed comes.”Crew chief Alan Gustafson
Johnson ran 28 laps on the track in the Formula 1 car, and Alonso shared that both drivers used at least three sets of tires as they strived to get the full experience in a new type of race car.
That was an important aspect of the day for both men.
“I think both came here with intentions of having fun, yes, swapping the cars, yes, but not a normal swap like we saw in other locations that they were swapping cars, doing a photograph and having one run and that’s it. We came for a full day of testing,” Alonso said. “We wanted to feel the new environment in a representative way at a speed that we could feel something that was close to what we feel normally.”
At the start of the test, both drivers set down laps in their own cars that the other driver could shoot for throughout the day.
Unsurprisingly, that brought out the competitive fire in both of them.
“I didn’t know how close I would get – the racer in me, of course, was focused on that,” Johnson smiled. “Straightaway I was asking what was his lap time, what was mine, can I look at the data, trying to piece that together.”
In the end, Johnson was able to lay down a lap time that was within two-tenths of a second of Alonso’s performance in the Formula 1 car.
"To finish the day two-tenths off of Fernando’s time in that F1 car is, I think, a job well done.”Jimmie Johnson
“Inside it feels good to be able to go out there and be in the same second bracket with him is very cool,” Johnson said. “I still think I left a little time on the table there, but to finish the day two-tenths off of Fernando’s time in that F1 car is, I think, a job well done.”
Both drivers left the event with smiles on their faces, a box checked on their bucket lists, and perhaps some sore muscles in their future – “I’m sure there will be some stiffness,” Johnson laughed.
It not only met, but exceeded, the lofty expectations they had set for the car swap.
“It was definitely a lifetime experience,” Alonso said. “These cars, they feel very different compared to the single seat of the Formula 1, but a lot of fun out there on the racetrack. Very powerful cars, sliding around, very little grip, so it feels amazing to drive. I had a lot of fun also following Jimmie’s progress.
“It was a wonderful day.”