So unless you have been living under a rock, you probably heard the announcement that two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso will forego the illustrious Monaco Grand Prix in favor of racing’s crown jewel event, the Indianapolis 500. Upon awakening to the news Wednesday morning, an uneasy thought entered my mind:
Could it still be April 1?
Well, it’s now April 13 and no one has pulled the plug on this prank with the idea finally sinking in. The 101st running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will feature not only a star-studded cast from the Verizon IndyCar Series, but now a cameo appearance with a magnitude of international importance not seen since possibly Nigel Mansell’s debut at IMS in 1993.
Speaking for how this news projects on the event and the series as a whole, Alonso is a huge get. While IndyCar has drivers such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves – big names in their respective countries – they do not have the same worldwide pull that the current McLaren F1 driver will bring to the heartland. Crossover coverage from media outlets across the world will jump aboard the Indy circus for the month of May and give traditional Formula One fans a more focused look at an event that they may not have given attention to otherwise.
While Formula One may not have the most exciting racing when compared to IndyCar, it is still considered the pinnacle of motorsport and many more eyes are on each F1 grand prix than most events on the VIS calendar. Connecting the two entities in this fashion not only elevates the Indianapolis 500 as an event (which is already one of the great sport gatherings in the world), it builds credibility and confidence that the IndyCar Series as a whole is moving in the right direction.
In continuing the notion that American open-wheel racing has real momentum these days, McLaren also hinted at the possibility of not only offering more Indianapolis 500 entries down the road but the legendary team even left the door open to full-time series participation in the future. To add another team to the circuit is always positive but to harvest an organization of McLaren’s caliber in a form of racing where the field is a slightly more level than Formula One is not only intriguing, it’s possible.
While most of McLaren’s 2017 storylines have centered around their so-called strained relationship with Honda, it seems that their partnership at Indianapolis with Andretti Autosport and the Japanese car company calms those choppy waters for now. Maybe the problem is more Alonso with Honda than McLaren with Honda, though that is something we will most likely not know until the end of the season. Point being, the relationship at this point is strong enough to construct an effort at IMS in particularly short order.
Now, the biggest (and most important) question: Can he win?
There are many difficulties that an Indy 500 rookie faces over the course of the month that, at the very least, series regulars are more acclimated to. Obviously the speed is blistering fast, and a constant danger. Formula One cars can reach top speeds near 210 miles per hour on some of the longer circuit straightaways, but they do not average that speed each lap for 500 miles. There is certainly an adjustment period Alonso will face, but I feel that is the easiest aspect to familiarize yourself with.
Of greater importance there is a race craft to be developed in IndyCars as you deal with intense speeds in traffic. The term aero push – losing the grip in the front of your car while following an opponent closely behind – is something discussed each May and as a driver it is a nuisance that is to be respected. There is a certain rhythm that takes some getting accustomed to through trial and error that must be absorbed as a rookie before you can accomplish the most vital task: passing other cars. Hopefully in Fernando’s case we have dry weather throughout Indy 500 practice days and he gets all the track time allotted and necessary.
So as a spectator, I am thrilled to have a driver of Alonso’s caliber attempting the Indianapolis 500 and creating a worldwide buzz that played out through the day Wednesday. As a member of the media I am intrigued at what this could mean for him moving forward as well as how his efforts are received by those respected in the sport. It will be fascinating to watch these events unfold and the month of May could not get here any quicker.
Also just once more, are we sure it is not April Fools Day?