So, Fernando Alonso is to miss the Monaco Grand Prix to compete in this year’s Indy 500. After McLaren’s shock at the start of this season, when discovering their Honda power unit was woefully underperforming for the third year in succession, the team have turned the tables with a surprise of their own that has rather knocked those travails into a cocked hat. Perhaps that was partly the point, but it also informs as to where the team are now, about Alonso, his future and relationship with McLaren. Equally, whatever the motives, it is a decision for which the driver and McLaren should be admired.
Alonso will compete at the 500 for Andretti Autosport, run by the former McLaren driver Michael Andretti, whose team – powered by a Honda engine – won the race last year. The 500 is one part of motorsport’s triple crown, alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Only one driver has achieved it – Graham Hill – but Alonso has now acknowledged he would like to match the British champion. “It’s one of my ambitions to win the triple crown,” he said. “It’s a tough challenge, but I’m up for it.” He has previously stated his intention to race at Le Mans and reiterated that on Wednesday.
The two-times world champion is now 35 and there may be within this a suggestion he realises a third title is beyond his reach and has decided to aim to close his career with an achievement that would be quite extraordinary in the modern era. Drivers simply do not race across disciplines as they did in Hill’s time and in recent years only Juan Pablo Montoya – who has two of the three but not Le Mans – and Jacques Villeneuve, who qualifies for the alternative version of the crown with Indy and the F1 championship rather than Monaco, are the only drivers to have even been in with a shout.
That Alonso’s team have allowed him to do so and indeed to miss what is publicly seen as one of the biggest races of the year, and one at which McLaren’s power deficit would be least noticeable, is equally telling. Alonso’s unhappiness with the Honda engine for the past two years was tempered by the expectation that it would at least be competitive in 2017, which has proved a forlorn hope.
His contract is up this year and it is not hard to surmise that agreeing to allow him to miss Monaco for Indy is part of a strategy to keep the driver on board both for the remainder of this season and possibly after that.
With the car underperforming again, having a driver of Alonso’s calibre and stature is of huge import to McLaren, not just in his ability on track but also in his profile and its importance in attracting prospective sponsors.
He is expensive and a handful to manage but is also one of the main assets the team still have. If the price of keeping him behind the wheel is a weekend away – even Monaco – it seems one worth paying.
But there is more to it than mere horse trading. This decision would have been unthinkable under the Ron Dennis regime and it is a clear example of how thinking at McLaren has changed under the new executive director, Zak Brown.
Brown, whose background was as CEO of the motorsport marketing company JMI, is acutely aware of just how valuable the McLaren brand is and how the history of the team plays into that. They previously won Indy in 1972 with Penske and as a works team in 1974 and 1976. Bruce McLaren – as the soon-to-be-released biopic reminds us with some glorious footage – built cars to race in Can-Am and Indycar – a rich history that the team are now revisiting, not least by branding the Andretti entry in the papaya orange of those Can-Am heydays – rather than the more day-glo version of the current F1 car.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of telling the story of McLaren,” Brown said in Shanghai last week. “Yes, F1 is what we are aiming for but we are a great automotive company. The power of our brand is much stronger than our week to week race results.”
Choosing to do Indy is an acknowledgement that the team can and will be ambitious beyond F1. One of the team’s owners, Mansour Ojjeh, said that they may yet introduce a full works McLaren IndyCar operation in future.
Might Alonso even achieve the triple crown with McLaren? The team won at Le Mans in 1995 with the McLaren F1 GTR and, while the prototype class is now expensive and dominated by manufacturers that is likely to change in future. Intriguingly Ojjeh also chose to make reference to a return to La Sarthe, noting: “We may potentially enter the Le Mans 24 Hours again some time.”
Whatever the ultimate rationale, and doubtless a complex combination of factors are at play here, it is impossible not to be thrilled at the chance to see Alonso take on the challenge of the Brickyard, and it is a bold decision from his team to allow him to do so – a new direction for them both and a shock that deserves not a little awe.