Ed Jones – the Other Impressive 101st Indianapolis 500 Rookie

Following the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, Craig Woollard looks at Ed Jones' impressive debut around the speedway that saw him finish the race in third place behind Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves.

The coveted Rookie of the Year honours for the 101st Indianapolis 500 has somewhat controversially been awarded to Fernando Alonso. Many within IndyCar’s circles feel Ed Jones deserved this accolade.

Ed Jones – the Other Impressive 101st Indianapolis 500 Rookie

There is absolutely no denying what Alonso achieved on and off the track during May. He proved his versatility by taking to the fearsome Indy oval like a duck takes to water. He qualified a superb fifth, ahead of two of his vastly more experienced Andretti Autosport team-mates, led 29 laps early on and was still running in the top ten when his Honda engine expired with just 21 laps to go.

Alonso-mania was clear to see also. The reaction from the 300,000-strong crowd on raceday when he took the lead and came to a halt was exceptional. Many unfamiliar with ovals tuned in for the first time because of Alonso, and perhaps Formula 1 will benefit from this as well. His conduct was superb considering that this is a new paddock for him.

Jones had a different, yet incredibly impressive month. Disaster struck for Dale Coyne Racing when Jones’ team-mate and team leader Sebastien Bourdais hit the wall hard in qualifying. Jones was shoehorned therefore the de-facto number one driver in the team. That’s a lot of pressure to put onto a driver ahead of the biggest race of his career to date, and his first IndyCar race on a big oval.

11th on the grid was a stellar effort from the rookie, who narrowly missed out on reaching the Fast Nine. His race was hampered early on by hitting some debris, resulting in a rear wing assembly change and drag on the front of the car, but a typical Coyne strategy and strong driving vaulted him back to the front when it mattered most – the end. Jones challenged Helio Castroneves and eventual race winner Takuma Sato but it wasn’t quite enough with the earlier damage. However, he still finished a sensational third.

The criteria for Rookie of the Year is decided on four factors and picked from a panel from the media – skill, sportsmanship, accessibility and result. Given the difference between the backgrounds surrounding the two drivers and their respective previous experience as well as their teams, choosing between these two for the honours must have not been easy. Ultimately, both were very impressive but for very different reasons.

The accolade has been shared in the past, in the event of a tie in the voting, but this year, Alonso’s consistent presence towards the front appears to have been enough to sway the media on the night of the banquet. Was either driver better than the other? It’s tough to tell. There is precisely no guarantee that Alonso would have put in the performance he managed if he was in Jones’ position and the same could be said of Jones if he was in Alonso’s.

Alonso being at the front was hardly surprising, given his abilities as a driver and the resources and equipment he was handed. Yes, oval experience is a factor, but he also had a private test, many days of practice to prepare for the big event and four very experienced team-mates for assistance. If anything, Alonso not being towards the front would have been a shock.

Jones on the other hand, does have some oval experience to his CV, but none on IndyCar’s big ovals. His time at Indy before the race (in Indy Lights) was clearly invaluable, but ultimately he was not as well-prepared as Alonso was, but still more-so than the other two rookies in the field.

Hopefully Jones’ strong drive won’t get overlooked as a result of missing out on the honours. Third place for Coyne at the first time of asking at the Indy 500 is a massive result for both him and the team. IndyCar has a bright future in terms of driving talent and new teams coming in and 22-year old Jones is certainly a part of that future.
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