Fernando Alonso shocked the racing world this morning by announcing that he would be doing the nearly unthinkable, abandoning entering F1’s most prestigious race, Monaco, and instead entering in the only race west of the Atlantic that can hold a candle to it, Indianapolis. It’s a move that has many reasons, more on that later, but it is certainly not unprecedented. Indy’s long history has had an often times symbiotic relationship with F1.
And before I get going, let me issue a note to the reader: I am not talking about drivers who have started in IndyCar, then gone to F1. Or those that have come back and forth with much frequency. Hence why you will see names like Andretti, Montoya, and Villeneuve left out of this article.
The Early Years
With the inception of what we would now call ‘Formula One’ in 1950, the creators of the sport attempted to create a world wide experience for racing fans. While the series was primarily based in Europe, once a year, the Indianapolis 500 was included on the calendar. While not every European driver we would think of as a Formula One driver, a few actually did make the jump. Most notable of those were the two world champions Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Ascari came across to compete in Indianapolis in 1952. He was entered in a Ferrari car and managed to qualify for the field of 33, not a small accomplishment back in those days. His luck ran out during the race, however, and spun in the early stages of the race, winding up finishing 31st. The immortal champion Fangio, too, came over in 1958, much do the delight of American audiences. Fangio, however, never seemed to be comfortable about the 2 1/2 mile oval and withdrew from contention before qualifying.
The British Invasion
F1 truly came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the mid 60’s as the so called English ‘Garigestes’ tried their hand at winning the most famous race in America.. The first to enter was Chapman, who in 1963 put Jim Clark and his Ford powered Lotus 29 into a good enough position to earn second and the honor of being named rookie of the year. As with any racer, however, Clark and Chapman were not satisfied, entering the Lotus in 1964 and again in 1965. They finally won in 1965, becoming the first team to win with a rear engine car.
But Clark and Chapman had merely opened the flood gates to Indianapolis. By 1967 the Speedway had seen Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme, and Jochen Rindt all entered into the field of 33. While no driver besides Hill managed to win the race (Jackie Stewart was closest, nearly taking home top prize but being forced to withdraw due to engine failure), the European drivers made their mark as the Speedway began to look for new, innovative designs.
The true legacy of the British Invasion of Indianapolis is actually not the illustrious drivers who competed there. No, it is actually the technological advancement. Chapman’s brilliant Lotus designs ushered in a new wave in Indianapolis, one that saw aerodynamics play a crucial part in the design of a car. Similar to F1, aero became the driving force of design, not sheer engine power. And that is thanks to Chapman.
What is He Doing?
As the 70’s and 80’s rolled along, the chance of seeing a F1 style name at Indianapolis became increasingly rare. Teams with international renown supplied chassis for drivers and teams, most notably McLaren’s winning entries of Mark Donohue and Johnny Rutherford, but most of the big driver names stayed away.
Fans of the film Rush will remember the outraged expressed by McLaren when Emerson Fittipaldi left the team to start his own team. Well, that outrage was turned into exacerbation when he decided to abandon Formula One all together and dive headlong into IndyCar. And that dive turned out well for him and Fittipaldi expanded his career outside of F1, winning not only countless IndyCar races, but the 500 itself.
Nigel Mansell created a massive stir in 1992 when, after winning the World Championship, he announced he would be leaving Formula One to race IndyCar. The world thought him mad, but he did it anyway and proved to the North American audience that he could, indeed drive just as well in a circle as he could when there were right turns involved.
Most recently, we have seen Alexander Rossi who, for most of his life scraped and clawed to be a member of the elite F1 fraternity only to join IndyCar a year after reaching his goal, take the crown at the Brickyard.
So, while the one off entries at Indianapolis may not be as common as they used to be, Alonso’s jump is certainly not something we’ve never seen before. Will it pay off for him? Can the 2 time world champion add Indianapolis 500 Winner to his resume? Ask me in May.