Inevitably Fernando Alonso was the focus of attention in Bahrain on Thursday as Wednesday’s news of his Indy 500 program began to really sink in.
Everyone in the F1 paddock has an opinion on his decision, including his fellow drivers. Most agreed that it was a great story, but they couldn’t see themselves missing a Grand Prix to do another event. Having said that, few can claim to be at the same stage of their careers that Alonso finds himself in.
The man himself was bombarded with questions, and he made the valid point that in years gone by, it was not such a strange idea to drive different cars in the same year.
Reasons for the decision
“I think in the past it was all about the best drivers in the world with the best cars in the world and the best races in the world,” he said. “Then it became more and more professional, the sport, and everyone was dedicated or fully committed to only one series, and I think that changed over time.
“This possibility, it was there for us this year, and I think I am excited to try a different thing. If I want to be the best driver in the world there are two options: I win eight Formula One World Championships, one more than Michael, which is very unlikely; the second one is to win different series in different moments of my career and be a driver that can race and win in any car, in any series.
“So, that’s very challenging – but attractive as well. So, this is the reason behind it. With the same team it’s a win-win situation. I think it is good for Formula One. This big market in North America that we’ve been pursuing for many years.
“I think it’s good to go there now and show the respect for the IndyCar series; good for Indy, I guess, to have some Formula One drivers in the competition, and same for McLaren-Honda. I think, as a team, to be racing in the same day in Monte Carlo and in the Indy 500, two McLaren-Hondas in different series, is an amazing thing for motorsport fans. As I said, I think it’s a win-win series for everyone.”
Making the decision
He admitted that the idea had come from a casual conversation with American team boss, Zak Brown: “It was a conversation at dinner in Australia that we were sharing our ambitions for the future: me as a driver, of my karting school and different things, different projects that I’m in and as a driver to win something else other than Formula One that we succeed to win a few things was attractive.
“Zak was telling me his vision about the team in the near future, expanding McLaren into different series in motorsport so I think it was a conversation that began casually but it didn’t come from my side or his side. It was just a conversation.”
LAT ImagesGlenn Dunbar
Alonso conceded that the exact plan for testing and preparation had yet to be finalized, but it will start next week when he heads to the USA.
“There is not a defined plan yet, it’s still on-going, so I cannot answer 100 percent sure what will be there. The plan, at the moment is that next weekend I will be in Alabama just visiting the race and meeting the team members to see how things go there.
“Probably on Monday after the race I will do the seat fitting, and then I will fly to Russia for the race. After Russia, I will try to be in Indianapolis for a couple of simulator days and hopefully test the car – but it’s not 100 percent sure.
“And after that I will go to the Spanish Grand Prix and then fly to America on Sunday after the race because the free practice is on Monday at midday. So, definitely busy weeks in front. On the planes, I will try to look at some videos and some races from the past years and try to learn as quick as I can.
“It’s completely different skills that you need there, to adapt to the car, to adapt to the circuit, strategies, ways of racing: that close, at that speed, so many things that I have to learn and I’m not ready yet, at the moment – but in the next couple of weeks I am confident I will be able to adapt as quick as I can.”
Zak Brown vs. Ron Dennis
Alonso conceded that the deal would probably not have come together under the leadership of Ron Dennis
“I guess not. Zak is a man who has a bigger vision that other team principals or bosses that I had. He sees motorsports differently; he sees McLaren bigger, not only concentrated in Formula One. McLaren won Le Mans a couple of times, won the Indy 500 in the past as well a couple of times. I think he is a true racer.
“I think it is great that McLaren and Zak joined forces last year. It’s a good thing. Secondly, if the car was competitive this year and we were with 43 points together with the other two guys, you cannot afford to lose 25 points possibility missing one race. So, probably the feeling was different if we were competitive.”
24 Hours of Le Mans
Alonso was also asked about Le Mans, the other race that he wants to add to his resume.
“It’s between Canada and Baku, no? We’ll see how many flight connections there are! [The 500] was something also on the table this year, also because Zak, as an American was pushing for the Indy 500, Eric [Boullier] as a Frenchman, he was pushing for the Le Mans, so I had two good friends in one moment pursuing the race. I think the McLaren-Honda partnership, to be able to run this in the Indy 500, was very attractive this year.
“For Le Mans it is something I will do – probably as soon as I can. I don’t know if it will be next year or from the following years. The only and first priority is Formula One, so if I can race together with Formula One and other series, as I’m doing this year, will be great. If not, I will do only Formula One.”
LAT PhotographicZak Mauger
Alonso acknowledged that it was not going to be easy to miss Monaco, the jewel in the crown of the World Championship.
“It’s very hard. Definitely Monte Carlo, we know with the package we have in the last couple of years, it was our best opportunity, it’s where we achieved the best results in the last couple of years, so it’s a very magic event in Formula One so with all respect to all the other races, any other race to miss was fantastic compared to Monte Carlo. I will try to follow it from Indianapolis, also that that weekend is more or less free there, it’s only the race on Sunday so I will miss Monaco massively.
“Monaco is the biggest race of the calendar in Formula One and the event is amazing, not only the race on Sunday but the whole weekend is amazing but the best result that we achieved was last year, fifth. Thinking that we are a little bit less competitive this year, you know and maybe you had a possibility to do another top five or seven or six or wherever, it’s great to have some points but I’ve won a couple of times there already and two times World Champion so to have fifth, seventh or ninth in Monaco will not change my life. In a way, it’s impossible to compare... to have the minimum chance to win the Indy 500 compared to a fifth or sixth or seventh in Monaco. It’s much bigger, the other possibility.”
Finding a replacement
Thus far McLaren has not named his replacement. Jenson Button has the reserve role, and remains the logical choice, although for some reason his participation has yet to be announced.
“I think for the Monaco replacement I don’t know. I have no idea of what the team is thinking of at the moment, and I don’t have any preference either. I think whoever will be in the car will do great because the team will try to make the best decision possible.
“Also I’m sure that Stoffel will put the car where he will need to put it because now with some more races and also testing next week here, I think we will get to the maximum speed as soon as possible, so I’m not concerned for this. It will be a good weekend in Monaco for the team, I’m sure. In Indy, I don’t have a clear target, let’s put it that way. I’m going there just with the feeling of enjoy this experience, learn as much as I can from the track side with the different skills that I will need to drive those cars - and also from the outside which I think... the event is quite big, it’s a 14-day event with many things happening there.
“So I am very open to anything that comes, but at the same time I’m a racer and if I want to win the triple crown one day I have to win that race. If that win happens earlier than expected it’s welcome. Otherwise I need to go again.”
As for F1
So what then of F1? He’s definitely not given up on it just yet.
“I want to win, I’m here to win. I think this year I prepared harder than ever for this year. There’s also the change of regulations. We have high hopes for this year. I feel great with these cars, I’m able to extract the maximum from the cars while during the last couple of years it was difficult because especially with the tires you had to manage the tires in a strange way: the less you push, the more performance was there in the tires so this year is coming back to more normal Formula One and I really enjoyed the race in Australia and in China as well. We were running and securing eighth place. With the performance we have now, it was completely unexpected. Even the most optimistic simulation we had was telling us that we were around 14th or 15th. So I think I’m really at the best of my career right now in terms of driving so for next year, the target has to be only one: fighting for the World Championship, so not any more fifth or sixth.”