What about Alonso’s Indy 500 ride?
The news that Fernando Alonso will forego the most compelling Formula One race of the year at Monaco to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500 this May 28th seemed like it arrived 11 days late. This has to be an April Fool’s joke, right, coming from McLaren-Honda at 3:10AM PDT on a Wednesday morning.
Fernando Alonso isn’t the kind of guy to hide his emotions, and it’s been easy, over the past year or so to see that he’s been thoroughly frustrated with the lack of technological advancement and racing pace at his chosen team.
The Honda power unit hasn’t come together with the chassis developed by McLaren; things just haven’t worked to his or the team’s advantage, nor for teammates past and present. Seeing this grand squad running mid-pack or lower has been a let-down for them as well as students and fans of the sport of motor racing. Seeing a two-time F1 champion languishing in the way-back, well, it’s not been fun for anyone involved.
So the news of this deal, which brings McLaren back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after 38 years is compelling. Compelling. Discussions broached by Alonso began in Australia – as a joke – and the deal was sealed a short fortnight later in Shanghai. Things happen quickly when everyone involved thinks it’s the right thing to do.
As we all know by now, McLaren-Honda and Fernando Alonso intend to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The car will be a sixth (!) Andretti Autosport entry. Operations for the fifth car, announced this past weekend at the 43rd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for Jack Harvey – also an Indy 500 rookie – have now been directed to Honda’s top sports-car team Michael Shank Racing (MSR), which has been trying to get a foothold in Indy car racing since well before the advent of the DW12 chassis. Shank, a former driver had a chassis but no engine deal. This allows him to compete without having to purchase all the goods – again.
This arrangement with MSR allows Michael Andretti, who seemed a bit distracted during Harvey’s Saturday announcement in Long Beach, to assist fully in the running of the McLaren-Honda Alonso entry. He’ll have plenty of on-the-ground assistance from American Zak Brown, currently executive director of McLaren Technology Group.
Michael will take the direct line, by calling his race, to assist Alonso in the most important aspects of running Indy – respecting the track. CART’s 1991 champion, and a four-time Indy 500 winning owner knows this place well. After all, no one who’s raced at Indianapolis has had more success – without claiming victory – in the 500 than has Michael Andretti.
Many drivers have come to Indy with the idea of conquering these four turns 200 times. Many F1 drivers have arrived in the Circle City expecting to thrive and have had their lack of respect thrown back at them. Most recent ex-F1 entrants include Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 Indy 500 winner, Jean Alesi and, of course Nigel Mansell, who lost an argument with Indy’s walls in his first attempt to claim a “Baby Borg” BorgWarner trophy.
Alonso will have benefit of Honda’s Brownsburg simulator and, no doubt, the McLaren team will get an enhanced program together for him at their Woking, UK headquarters’ simulators. At the same time, the Spaniard must keep his head together for his everyday job, which is racing his F1 car. As he works the simulators, he’ll have to remember that respect for this track is the number one subject on his agenda. A lack of respect for the track has claimed many bodies, some more renown than he and some less so.
This news makes me think of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most recent winner in Long Beach. James Hinchcliffe completed his return to form last weekend with a true racer’s gritty ride to victory. This wasn’t handed to him; he earned it. The amount of work the Mayor of Hinchtown went through to gain his first victory since 2015 at New Orleans should be a lesson to Alonso.
Hinchcliffe knows the walls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – they nearly took his life.
So while we’re all excited to welcome back McLaren to IMS and to welcome Fernando Alonso, we must make sure we don’t make them statistics in the darker side of Indy 500 lore. Monte Carlo is one of the most difficult and historic F1 tracks on the planet; Indianapolis Motor Speedway can claim the same directive for INDYCAR.
Here’s wishing a safe, fast and successful return for McLaren Honda and their driver Fernando Alonso. Even with all the attendant apparatus and personnel at their disposal, it’s not going to be all that easy for them.
By Anne Proffit