Expert opinion and analysis
With a single keystroke, McLaren, Honda and Fernando Alonso have changed the nose-diving trajectory of their 2017 narrative. That keystroke was the pushing of an email icon marked ‘send’ to circulate news of Alonso’s forthcoming assault on the Indy 500 to a dumbstruck media horde.
It’s hard to keep a secret in Formula 1; harder still to keep a lid on such a juicy tale, but McLaren managed to do just that. No one saw this coming, although they’re going to owe one particular bright young F1 journalist a favour for a very long time…
The dropping of this media bomb had an effect not seen in our cosy little world since the News of the World went nuclear on Max Mosley back in 2008 (to that title’s terminal cost, it must be noted). Specialist motorsport outlets were sent into swooning meltdown, while even the most sober mainstream publications assented
their respectful nods: “A Formula One Driver in the Indianapolis 500 Is No Longer Blasphemy,” declared The New York Times. “Fernando Alonso and McLaren should be admired for Indy 500 decision,” echoed The Guardian.
The Alonso news, unlike the Mosley revelations, has been viewed with almost uniform positivity by all close to the sport and even further afield. By one estimate, the 12 April announcement generated more F1-related media coverage in the US than the entire 2016 US GP.
That says an awful lot about Alonso’s star power – a finding shortly to be confirmed when F1 Racing publishes the results of the recent global fan survey conducted by our sister titles Autosport and motorsport.com. It also says a lot about the enduring allure of the Indy 500 – as storied a race as ever there was, and one third of the elusive motorsport ‘triple crown’ (alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and Le Mans) that Alonso so covets.
“If I want to be the best driver in the world,” he said of his new quest, “there are two options: I win eight Formula 1 world championships, one more than Michael Schumacher, which is very unlikely; the second one is to win different series in different moments of my career and be a driver who can race and win in any car, in any series. So that’s very challenging – but attractive as well.”
Indeed so, and like all the best ideas The Great Fernando’s Indy Adventure started as an off-the-cuff remark – a back-of-the-fag-packet sketch, if you will.
“I mentioned to Fernando that it would be cool for McLaren to go back to Indy with him,” says the team’s executive director Zak Brown, “and man, he bit – hard!” Once he did, a whim that might have withered as nothing more than mere fancy – a happy daydream for incurable racing romantics – took on a harder edge as it became infused with compelling business and sporting logic.
For while McLaren’s 2017 F1 season remains blighted by a woefully inadequate Honda power unit, why not go and do something else, something to appease both raging driver and patient backers in need of limelight; something to breathe on McLaren’s racing ame; something that, without the corporate blinkers of a Ron Dennis, or the ringmaster clamp of an Ecclestone st, could actually be made to happen? And more: good ol’ Jenson gets to come back in a starring super-sub role for the Monaco Grand Prix! What’s not to like?
The Indy 500, then, will be Alonso’s release, a grand stage upon which he can race once more at the front. This welcome safety valve brings with it the bonuses of being attractive to McLaren’s sponsors (currently getting poor bang-for-buck in F1) and the spectacular switching of negatives into a positive. And for Honda, brief respite from being F1’s whipping boys (in IndyCar, their V6 turbo motor has won two races from three so far this year).
All this, of course, in advance of the Indy 500, with optimism high and the tantalising prospect of a rich new experience to be savoured. The downside, need it be said, is that Indy is a US oval superspeedway, where lap speeds will top 370km/h and where no accident is small. And
I MENTIONED TO FERNANDO THAT IT WOULD BE COOL FOR MCLAREN TO GO BACK TO INDY WITH HIM AND MAN, HE BIT – HARD!
Alonso will be racing there as a rookie – albeit a double world champion rookie rated as an all-time great.
“I would be open to criticism if he hurts himself,” Brown told F1 Racing. “Everything in motor racing is a calculated risk – even someone making a pass in a grand prix. You can hide from that but, you know, we haven’t forced Fernando to do this. He’s the guy who is making the decision. It’s either going to be one of those things where we go and win the race and we look like absolute geniuses, or the other extreme: he hurts himself and everyone says ‘I can’t believe they did it’. But we’re in a risk-taking business, so you can either be a chicken-shit or be a racer and go for it as best you can.”
The perils of oval racing, not to mention the singularly epic scale of the 500, should not be ignored by any who take on their challenge, which helps explain why McLaren have employed former Indy winner and two-time IndyCar champ Gil de Ferran as Alonso’s ‘driver coach’ – although he scoffs at the description. “That terminology is a little bit misleading,” he says, “and I certainly don’t think I’ll be offering Fernando any tips on how to drive! We’re talking about one of the best drivers in history, someone who’s very complete and who excels in all the important aspects of being a racing driver. Whenever there are moments of wheel-to-wheel racing in F1, when they’re mixing it up, Mr Alonso always seems to come out on top.”
Where de Ferran believes he might be able to offer guidance is in short-cutting the learning process of how to go about a long (three hour-plus) race held in a unique amphitheatre setting. “There’s no other motorsport experience that can prepare you for racing in an arena in front of 400,000 people for the rst time,” he says. “Then there’s the race itself; it has a cadence, so there are moments when you have to be aggressive and others when you have to chill. It’s a very strategic race.”
And it’s definitely no place for the faint-hearted: “There are certain situations,” says De Ferran, “particularly in qualifying, when Indy challenges your courage and your instinct for self-preservation. You qualify on an empty track, on a solo run, and you never really know what the track conditions are going to be like. You don’t have time to wait to nd out, so you end up telling yourself: ‘I am going to keep my right boot at.’ And that’s what you do.”
Bravery is not a quality Alonso lacks and his speed and racing skills are not in question. Meantime, McLaren’s chosen partner, Andretti Autosport, are a blue-riband IndyCar operation: four titles in the series and four Indy 500 wins, the most recent with Alex Rossi. Michael Andretti himself will call race strategy for Alonso.
Might an improbable victory therefore be in prospect? De Ferran, for one, won’t rule it out: “I said from the beginning that Fernando Alonso is the kind of guy who could win in anything with four wheels, an engine and a steering wheel. And an IndyCar has all of those things.”
FRIENDS IN NEED
Neither McLaren nor Alonso, nor Honda have much to lose by bunking off the Monaco GP. Fernando’s fth place last year was a joint-best 2016 result for all parties, and prospects even for a repeat seem low. The 2017 McLaren-Honda package remains stubbornly off the pace, despite this being their third year under the ‘hybrid’ F1 technical regulations. And for Honda, the challenge of engineering sufficiently potent energy recovery systems to couple with their 1.6-litre V6 turbo seems insurmountable; the MCL32 has been near-becalmed, such is the lack of thrust from Honda’s RA617H.
McLaren maintain their car’s a good ’un, and that GPS corner-speed traces prove that it’s fully competitive through the twisty bits. But down the straights is another story. Over the Bahrain Grand Prix meeting alone, four MGU-H failures blighted the weekends of Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, the latter unable even to take the start. “I have never raced with less power in my life!” fumed Alonso in Bahrain and he was seen on the Saturday of the race weekend in a semi-public confrontation with Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa.
There may, however, be the prospect of a less fleeting x to this unsatisfactory relationship than the temporary succour offered by a jaunt to the Indy 500. F1 Racing understands that reports of Mercedes preparing to help Honda get to grips with the furiously complex and multi-faceted F1 hybrid technology are accurate, so it may yet come to pass that Honda, with outside assistance, are able to construct an engine sufficiently powerful to convince Alonso to stick around.
‘I HAVE NEVER RACED WITH LESS POWER IN MY LIFE!’ FUMED ALONSO IN BAHRAIN
But what if Alonso cries “enough!” and throws himself into the swirl of the 2018 driver market? Well, things could get interesting, because a number of race seats aren’t being occupied as securely as they might be and for this, we can thank F1’s two Finns – Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen. Both are notionally out of contract at the end of this year, and while Kimi’s future will most likely boil down to whether or not Ferrari will sign their 2007 champion for one last dance, Bottas’s position is more nuanced.
On paper he’s doing okay, and his hardedged Sochi win, showing Lewis Hamilton the way all weekend, will have done his prospects no harm. But will that be enough to earn him a second year in silver? Rumours persist that Mercedes hanker after Sebastian Vettel’s signature more than any other, and regard him as the only credible successor to Hamilton in terms of talent, speed and eminence, should Lewis ever up sticks to pursue more vigorously his non-racing activities.
With Vettel also being out of contract at the end of ’17, a Hamilton-Vettel Merc superteam is a real – if unlikely – possibility, and one that would also open up a Ferrari drive, regardless of Räikkönen’s fate.
And who might be available to answer Ferrari’s call? Remember when no one believed Alonso could ever go back to McLaren…?
RUMOURS PERSIST THAT MERCEDES HANKER AFTER SEBASTIAN VETTEL’S SIGNATURE MORE THAN ANY OTHER, AND REGARD HIM AS THE ONLY CREDIBLE SUCCESSOR TO HAMILTON IN TERMS OF TALENT, SPEED AND EMINENCE
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