I’m excited to see Fernando Alonso running this year’s Indianapolis 500, but there’s far worse news hidden behind that awesome announcement. There’s no way McLaren would let two-time F1 world champion Alonso out of the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix if they thought they had a snowball’s chance in Hell with this year’s car.
McLaren fans, prepare yourselves. This year is already ugly, but Alonso’s Indianapolis vacation is a sure bet that it’s going to stay ugly.
Formula One teams are notoriously stingy with their drivers nowadays, especially if a grand prix is on the same weekend as another event. For example, when the 24 Hours of Le Mans fell on the same date as a regular-season Formula One race in Baku, the general assumption became that no one from F1 would do Le Mans.
And that was for one of the least-loved basic, regular, un-special races on the schedule, not the glitzy, glamorous affair steeped in tradition that is Monaco. Le Mans is no doubt the more important race, as it’s part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport along with the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. In other words, it’s among the three most prestigious and important races in the world, and F1 drivers were still off-limits because of a minor F1 date in a shady dictator-led petro-state.
There’s simply far less crossover between top-level motorsports than there was in the racing’s early years, as no one wants to be put in Sauber’s current position of having to scramble for a substitute for an injured full-season driver. That is, if you think you might score some points.
If there was any hope that Honda could fix McLaren’s busted power unit anytime soon, McLaren would do everything they could to keep Alonso firmly glued to his F1 seat for the Monaco Grand Prix.
But there isn’t, and here we are.
Alonso’s car in particular has a stunning record of two retirements in for the first two races of 2017, and McLaren agreeing to let him go do Indy instead of Monaco is a sure sign that there’s little hope that his car will be fixed soon.
It’s a tremendous pick-up for IndyCar. Clearly, they took note of the international attention that having an ex-F1 backmarker win the Indy 500 brought the series last year. People who normally pay no attention to even Indy’s biggest race suddenly gave up a bit of attention.
So, to top last year’s landmark 100th running of the Indy 500, IndyCar leveraged their relationship with Honda to woo one of F1's biggest names over for their biggest race. They even convinced beloved racer Stefan Wilson—the brother of late IndyCar racer Justin Wilson—to step aside to let Alonso have a go in his car.
Mark Miles, the president and CEO of IndyCar’s parent company Hulman & Company, told Racer of the move:
As much as [Stefan Wilson] wanted to run the Speedway this year, he was looking out for the greater good of IndyCar. Quite a gesture.
In other words, this is no fluke on IndyCar’s part. It’s a calculated play to attract more fans to a series frequently criticized for floundering around with a dwindling fanbase, and without a solid plan to find more fans in the future.
But Indy’s big gain is someone’s loss, and that someone is absolutely the McLaren F1 team.
Best of luck to Alonso, but don’t mind me as I sit here confused—half-ecstatic to see Alonso with the competitive Andretti Autosport team and half-very-sad because I’ll have to watch pretty orange McLarens continue to suck in F1 for the rest of the year.