Due to circumstances beyond his control, Fernando Alonso has been making most of the two-way conversation when in the McLaren F1 cockpit. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not only will there be zero time for irreverent chat but, whether he likes it or not, Alonso will need to be a good listener while running at 225 mph.
The role of the spotter is one of the many unique and vital aspects of an event that has no equal in Indycar, never mind anywhere else. Five hundred miles of racing is not just two had a half times the length of what he is accustomed to -- assuming his McLaren-Honda lasts that long; it is also an ever-changing kaleidoscope of track conditions, movement and strategy that requires the help of someone seeing the picture from every angle around the car.
Spotters are usually located on top of the main grandstand, standing -- often for hours on end without a break - in all weathers in order to get an encompassing view of the entire track. The spotter is not only advising his driver of unseen hazards in the event of an accident ahead (prompting urgent calls to "Stay left!" or "Go right! Go right!") but also warning of close company on the understanding that his driver's peripheral vision is as severely limited as the view from his mirrors. Apart from helping win the race, the more probable and arguably important role of the spotter is to keep his driver safe.
"The spotter is helping you understand what is going on in your blind spots," says Dario Franchitti, whose spotters helped talk the Scotsman to three wins in the Indy 500. "Fernando will have been building up a rapport with his spotter from the moment he started testing. As soon as you leave the pits, you are in communication with him, talking about how you build up speed. You build a vocabulary together and he's telling you what's going on behind and ahead.
"The toughest thing I found at the Speedway is [learning] how to race. To run on your own is not that difficult. But when you get in a pack, [it's about] how to position your car, and some of that comes from experience. If the person in front moves his car to a certain position, where do you position your car? How do you time your passes to keep the momentum up?
"There's a lot of things going on; the weather is going to change a lot. When you look at the Speedway, there's four left-hand corners; so, what's the big deal? But the weather changes, the temperature the humidity changes, the wind direction changes; it completely changes how the track feels.
"Then there is the mental aspect of being in the car for all eight days. Every time you leave the pits, you are circulating above 225 mph. There is absolutely no margin for error; it's the tightest of tightropes. You cannot step over. If you do, that Safer Barrier is waiting.
"His engineer will be talking strategy and his spotter -- you need two because the Speedway is two-and-a-half miles and one spotter can't see everything -- will be in his ear. It's going to be tough, but he's with a great team and they will do everything to help."
Alonso will be relying heavily on his spotters throughout his debut Indy 500 race experience when he lines up on the grid from fifth on Sunday May 28.