Alonso's 500: A dream come true for fans

Alonso's 500: A dream come true for fans

12 April 2017 – Fernando Alonso and McLaren caused a stir on social media with the announcement that they will contest this year's Indianapolis 500 in an Andretti-run, Honda-powered car. GPUpdate.net reacts to the news.

"Fernando Alonso to race the Indy 500."

Yes, you read that right. Yes, it is happening.

It was still early morning in Indianapolis when news broke that a McLaren would be racing in the 101st running of IndyCar's biggest race and that a two-time Formula 1 World Drivers Champion and current F1 star would be at the wheel. Take one look at social media a few hours later, and everything is still buzzing with excitement.

It was no secret that Alonso had been intrigued by the Indy 500 in the past. Like any true racer, that innate desire to compete and challenge oneself naturally attracted the Spaniard, especially since the format is so far outside of his comfort zone.

Also a student of history, Alonso knows the opportunity to contest any leg of the fabled Triple Crown outside of F1 is getting rarer and rarer. Named for the feat of winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Triple Crown currently belongs to only one driver: the late Graham Hill.

Alonso is already a two-time Monaco Grand Prix winner, and many argue that he is still one of the most talented drivers on the grid (reinforced by the fact that his fellow drivers have repeatedly voted him as "Best Active F1 Driver").

However, it's one thing to pick up and race in a different series. It's another to leave a current Formula 1 team on the sport's most prestigious weekend to race in a different hemisphere. For this to happen, countless details had to fall into place.

Let's first think about the McLaren-Honda team. Progress has come slowly to the legendary manufacturer since adopting Honda engines last year, and after countless failures, consistent lack of pace and difficulty adapting to the new rules of 2017, fans find themselves thrilled when a McLaren somehow breaks into the top 10.

It's true that the team showed signs of improvement, but maintaining a positive front has been difficult for Alonso and last year's team-mate Jenson Button. Their faux-celebration on the podium in Brazil, shouting comparisons to a GP2 engine, Alonso's lawn chair moments, their incredulous laughs over team radio to suggestions of upping their pace, it's all combined to paint a frustrated picture of the Woking-based squad that they can't seem to shake.

Just since last year, team principal Ron Dennis was ousted, Button appeared to retire from Formula 1 quite happily, retirement rumours swirled for Alonso and the team had to deny they were ditching Honda. In pre-season testing they were off the pace again. Alonso's brave façade wore thin. Two DNFs to start the season haven't helped, either.

Enter the Indy 500 talk.

It had to seem to Alonso that there may never be a more perfect opportunity to leave than now.

His team's CEO, Zak Brown, is American and is close friends with Mark Miles, the CEO of the company that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His team has an obvious lack of sponsors. His engine supplier, Honda, has won the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar season after a few years of Chevy domination. And the Andretti Autosport team, with whom he has a deal, won last year's Indy 500 with a former F1 driver and rookie, Alexander Rossi.

How could he refuse?

In previous years, I find it hard to believe that Dennis or some of McLaren's bigger sponsors would have been too keen on Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix. Even today it seems surprising to think that a Formula 1 team would feel safe letting a driver compete in a setting as fast and unforgiving as the Indy 500. Moreover, it's unlikely this would be allowed if Bernie Ecclestone were still in charge of Formula 1 versus American Chase Carey, especially given the Briton's disinclination to let any other series draw attention from the sport.

Is this merely a way to placate a frustrated Alonso and keep him engaged until the car improves? Perhaps, but Brown is thinking of a bigger picture. "Any press is good press" has not worked for McLaren, so what better way to turn things around than to break one of the biggest stories of the racing season?

One can remember the surprise and support that Nico Hülkenberg received two years ago by competing at Le Mans. The news that an active F1 driver would be racing was momentous, especially when he went on to win the event with Porsche in his first try. But Le Mans is different than Indy.

It's not so much of a stretch to see a current F1 driver hop into a high-downforce car and drive in fury on a road course. But seeing Alonso in a Dallara chassis on a giant oval for 500 miles at 230mph? That was even more anticipated than McLaren's orange paint.

And what a time for Alonso to enter. Coming off the heels of the 100th running of the 500, interest for the Memorial Day weekend event is the highest it's been in years. A sold-out date last year saw almost half a million attendees watch Rossi conserve fuel and coast over the line to win as a rookie, and that was talked about all across America afterward. It seemed that interest was coming back to the legendary race.

Had it not been 11 years since his last world title, and had McLaren been a front-running car this year, would we have still seen Alonso contest the 500? Absolutely not. The move is just as much of a PR stunt as it is a genuine offer to one of the most respected drivers on Earth. But no one cares about that. The prospect of seeing Fernando Alonso in an IndyCar at one of the oldest, most historic tracks in the world is a dream come true for any true race fan.

Written by: Greg Woods

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