When F1 drivers commuted to Indianapolis

When Fernando Alonso's delayed return flight from the Indy test threatened his practice programme for the Russian Grand Prix, the Spaniard received a small taste of a frequent problem for F1 drivers back in the day.

Despite the Indianapolis 500 being part of the F1 World Championship between 1950 and 1960, logistics and little desire to race on an oval meant the option was not popular with F1 teams. But the attraction would multiply in tandem with an increasing prize fund that dwarfed start money received for the best part of an entire season's grand prix races, the experience being made additionally viable by the advent of rear-engine F1 cars capable of taking on and beating the lumbering Indy roadsters.

There was one more accommodating detail: until 1974, the Indy 500 was run on Memorial Day which meant the race was not always restricted to a weekend clashing with a grand prix.

A notable exception was 1965 when a Monday date meant Jim Clark and Lotus chose to miss Monaco. It was worth the gamble; Clark not only won the 500 but also returned to clean up his second F1 championship. Fernando can only dream of a McLaren-Honda as competitive as Jimmy's Lotus-Climax.

Even when Memorial Day fell on, say, Wednesday or Thursday of the following week, F1 drivers nevertheless faced a strenuous commute as they fitted Indy practice and qualifying around the demands of a grand prix. It was not uncommon to see drivers, in race overalls and carrying an overnight bag, running from the Monaco pit lane and jumping on the back of a motorbike the moment practice had finished.

In 1968, Denny Hulme was involved in a classic high-speed shuttle, made even more difficult by France being in the grip of a national strike affecting air traffic control, transport and fuel supplies.

The reigning world champion practised his McLaren-Ford at Monaco on Thursday, took part in the first half of the early morning session on Friday before legging it at 08.30 to a waiting Peugeot which whisked him to Nice airport. A private plane took Hulme to Milan, where he caught a scheduled flight to New York and made a connection to Indianapolis.

The effort thus far literally appeared to go up in smoke as the final session before qualifying drew to a close and the engine in his Eagle failed. The All American Racers team had a new Ford V8 installed just as qualifying was coming to an end, Hulme dispensing with a full warm-up lap as he blasted out of Gasoline Alley and turned in four laps at an average of 164.19 mph -- the fastest of the day. Given the complexities of the qualifying procedure, it earned a place on the seventh row for Thursday's race.

That done, Hulme ran from the Eagle to a helicopter waiting on the infield to take him to Indianapolis airport. From there, an executive jet flew to New York and parked alongside (this was in the days when security had yet to invade airport life) a specially delayed flight to Milan. Another private flight had him into Nice and on to Monaco in time for the 15.00 start. Now it was just the small matter of 80 laps (reduced, for the first time, from 100) around Monte Carlo.

Hulme's time from Friday morning had remained good enough for 10th on the grid (there was no qualifying as such; the best time from all three sessions establishing your grid position). A poor start was just the beginning of his troubles. Hulme found he had to wrestle with chronic understeer and yet retirements ahead gradually elevated the orange McLaren M7A to third.

On lap 44, there was respite -- but not the kind he wanted. A broken driveshaft coupling (a common complaint at Monaco) brought Hulme into the pits where, unbelievably by today's standards, the mechanics set about changing it on the basis that, with cars retiring all over the place, there were points to be had.

Seven laps later, Hulme rejoined fifth -- and last. The rules said that if he could complete 90 per cent of the distance, he would be classified and earn his two points. Now came the tricky bit.

If he lost one more lap to the leader, Graham Hill, Hulme would not be an official finisher. And Hill's Lotus, being chased hard by the BRM of Richard Attwood, was closing fast. Hulme, the toughest of men, dug deep and set his fastest race lap eight from the end to somehow hold on to fifth after almost two hours hard slog in the sunshine.

The McLaren team was garaged beneath our hotel on Avenue des Critonniers and I watched as Hulme stood motionless by the car and tried to speak to the mechanics. He was totally and utterly exhausted. A small boy came through and asked for Denny's autograph. Hulme stared into space as he scrawled on the boy's programme. It was nothing like his usual carefully crafted signature.

Hulme flew back to the Brickyard and finished fourth. All in a week's work in 1968.