Bob McMurray: Why Alonso will race at the Indy 500
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In the sometimes crazy and unpredictable (off track) world of planet Formula One it is not often that news comes along that is completely unpredictable and causes one to look at the date, to make sure it is not April 1st.
This week however one of those left field moments occurred when it was announced by McLaren Honda and Fernando Alonso that he would drive in this years Indianapolis 500 and that he would miss the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix held on the same date.
News that leaves many in the sport asking … Why?
The more cynical of us would immediately say that it was an attempt to deflect attention from the more pressing problem of the teams embarrassing lack of performance.
It may also beseem as a somewhat pathetic attempt to drag up the huge success of the team in the USA, in both CanAm sports car racing and at the Indy 500 itself, in past decades.
McLaren Executive Director Zak Brown is a marketing and branding expert after all and in his media release he states..
“Our car – the McLaren-Honda-Andretti – will be decked out in the papaya orange livery made famous by our founder Bruce McLaren, and in which Johnny Rutherford drove McLaren IndyCars to Indy 500 victory in both 1974 and 1976.”
It could also be seen as a pacifier to Alonso in order to keep him at the team for 2018. He has often expressed a desire to achieve ‘the big three’. Formula 1 World Champion, Indy 500 Champion and the 24 Heures du Mans winner.
Will this just be a first step and next year we will see him take another weekend off from F1 duties to compete at Le Mans?
Alonso is, after all, rapidly approaching the twilight years of his career and time to achieve all these aims is running out.
McLaren desperately need him to stay for 2018 and possibly beyond but his patience with the lack of performance must be running thin so I think a deal has been done, an ‘accommodation’ has been reached.
This arrangement could never have been done under the administration of Ron Dennis so it is clear that the current management have very different ideas on how to run the team and as astute as Alonso is, politically speaking, I think he saw a chance to leverage his position at the same time as McLaren were aware that he was hinting of an impending departure.
The McLaren directors, Mansour Ojjeh in particular, have also given well publicised indications that a full McLaren / Indy 500 assault is on the books at some time, sooner rather than later, so this could also be a ‘toe in the water’ for the team.
For this years race Alonso will run in a generic Dallara chassis and the car will be entered under the Andretti Autosport banner, 2016 winners of the race with Alexander Rossi, with a Honda engine.
The car will be liveried in ‘Papaya Orange’. Hopefully this will be the original McLaren orange rather than the awful rust coloured orange of the current F1 car.
Make no mistake, this is a very risky move for Alonso, having never raced an IndyCar before let alone on the famous super speedway, the site of many a huge accident.
As has always been the case, the ‘500’ is different to most other IndyCar events in that there are many possible hours of track time available leading up to the race so Alonso should be adapted to the car come race weekend.
He is with a very experienced team, a very experienced team manager in Michael Andretti, himself an ex-McLaren F1 driver, a winning engine and Alonso is still considered to be one of the best drivers in Formula 1. It all looks good, on paper!
It should also be seen as a very brave move by Alonso, putting himself front and centre of a very difficult one off race.
Will he win the race? Almost certainly no.
Will he win the hearts of the public? Almost certainly yes.
His appearance at ‘The Brickyard’ will result in huge publicity for not only the event itself, trying to find something to back up last years ‘100th running’, for Honda, for Andretti but not least for Alonso and McLaren.
I honestly hope that the publicity will be all positive.