F1 IN­SIDER

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS - AN­THONY ROWLINSON @Rowl­in­son_F1

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

ENOUGH AL­READY!

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

The ex­pres­sion says it all: Alonso gets be­hind the wheel of Marco An­dretti’s IndyCar in Alabama

Alonso’s F1 mount is a lame horse. So it ben­e­fits ev­ery­one to have him rac­ing else­where

It’s the big­gest race in Amer­ica and its risk fac­tor and scale are enor­mous. But that won’t daunt a fear­less com­peti­tor like Alonso

McLaren main­tain they have built a good chas­sis in the MCL32 and that the prob­lem is with the Honda PU. It’s now re­ported that Mercedes are step­ping in to help out…

This year they’re great sport­ing ri­vals. Next year, there’s a chance they could be team-mates

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