Bob McMurray: is Fernando Alonso the key to saving IndyCar?
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You have to admire Fernando Alonso. Still generally acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, of all the drivers on the Formula 1 grid, he seems to maintain a public face of enthusiasm and enjoyment from driving his McLaren — a recalcitrant car that has not returned the favour for a long time.
Perhaps his optimism is almost imperceptibly waning but still he gives every gram of his considerable talent whenever he steps into his non-performing orange office on wheels.
The paddock rumour mill, when it is bored with the Brendon Hartley situation, now has two-time champion Alonso stepping back from F1 to be driving a McLaren badged IndyCar in 2019.
Who can blame him?
With few doors open for a race-winning seat and the immediate McLaren F1 team’s future looking more akin to the Titanic, where in F1 could he go?
It would be a huge boost for IndyCar, a sport that has been in the attendance and viewership doldrums for some years but, according to “statistics”, is undergoing a resurgence in popularity.
Despite the fact that Will Power‘s Indy 500 win ranks as the lowest rated and least-watched on record.
It is also worth noting Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix viewing figures in the UK dropped to their lowest ebb of the modern era.
No wonder, as it was one of the dullest races held on that beautiful track, prompting suggestions the chequered flag should have been shown 68 laps early instead of just one.
These figures show a major boost is needed in both series — and perhaps Alonso is the “knight in shining armour” for IndyCar.
The forerunners of IndyCar (“Champcar” and “CART”) were mainly the preserve of North American drivers, brought up on speedway tracks of the Mid-West, and had a huge following. The names of Foyt, Unser, Andretti and Rutherford circled the world.
Some non-American drivers made regular guest appearances at the Indy 500, F1 champions among them, but it was not until the arrival of drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell that international drivers began to take on the series as a whole.
As in all motorsport, politics and money rule, and the premier US single seater series became riven with problems between the team owners and the sanctioning body.
Years of dispute saw popularity decline and in the eyes of many Europeans it was a rest home for drivers who could not make it in F1.
TV companies deserted the sport and sponsors followed.
With the acrimonious birth of the “Indy Racing League” — now known as “IndyCar” — the sport has clawed back fans, broadcasters and sponsors as well as an expansion of teams and drivers.
Of the 33 drivers tostart the 2018 Indy 500, 21 are non-American.
Those young drivers have become genuine contenders for wins and as Kiwi driver and multiple champion Scott Dixon says “the competition is very close”.
With overtaking, albeit assisted with “push to pass” buttons, multiple pit stops and power from a real “engine”, and with cars that look like real racing cars rather than sculptural masterpieces, there is more to watch on track than in some Formula 1 races.
Add to that the higher speeds, with IndyCars racing centimetres apart on high-speed ovals, road courses and street tracks and the drivers have to have a more expanded skill set.
IndyCar racing is on its way back to being a valid destination for international drivers, engineers and mechanics alike.
Formula 1 and IndyCar are not interchangeable; there are huge differences and problems on both sides and rarely does one driver succeed in having a foot in both camps. But the best can, and do, adapt.
And Alonso is one of the best.