It had to happen. I’ve beaten around the bush on this enough. I had to write an article devoted solely to my thoughts on Fernando Alonso’s skipping of the Monaco Grand Prix and instead competing in the Indianapolis 500. I know most of this may be recycled thoughts, but I’m writing it anyway. So enjoy.
Saying I was shocked hear the 2 time world champion would be competing in this year’s 500 mile race may be a bit of an understatement. When I rolled out of bed and read the bombshell news from the Spaniard, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. Never in my lifetime has anything like this happened. No F1 driver has ever opted to sit out the most illustrious race on the calendar and instead come to my hometown to turn left for 500 miles. Never.
But that’s what makes a lot of this so excited. This is, truly, uncharted waters. Not since the 60’s have we seen this happen. And, believe me, we are fortunate for seeing it happen.
First off, from the fan’s perspective, this is incredible news. Honda’s IndyCar program, unlike their most recent dive into F1, has been a massive success this year. They’ve won the first two races of the year and filled out at least one other spot on the podium as well. They look stronger than they have in years and with the times comes out of Texas yesterday, my earlier predictions may be wrong about them falling apart once the IndyCar speedway season starts up may be wrong and they may be able to keep up this streak of domination.
Seeing Alonso in a fast, competitive car is something the racing community, and hell even some of the drivers, have been begging to see for several years. Alonso is a phenomenal driver. World class. He was the one to finally unseat Schumacher. He went toe to toe with Hamilton at McLaren. He kept an relatively uncompetitive Ferrari in contention when they had no right to be. And most recently, he has put in some of the most impressive drives of his life, piloting his clearly ill McLaren to positions that should be unobtainable. Seeing him placed in a spec chassis, on a relatively equally playing field should allow him to showcase his talents in a way we haven’t seen in years.
That said, this is Indianapolis. Yes, he’s bound to get the inevitable ‘don’t turn right’ jokes when he takes to the track, but running at Indianapolis is nothing like running in F1. He will have to learn how to draft on the speedway, how to drive an IndyCar that is devoid of power steering, how to save fuel and tires in a way he has never had to before, and how to judge the timing of rolling starts. But all of those things should come to him. He is Fernando Alonso, after all.
But here in lies the problem. Alonso is going in to this with talk of winning the ‘Triple Crown.’ A lofty goal considering only one person in history has been able to achieve it. Let us not forget that it took Jim Clark three tries to win at Indy. Jackie Stewart never won it. Mansell never won it. Household F1 names like Rindt, Ascari, Fangio, and Hulme all went to Indianapolis and didn’t so much as make a blip on the radar. Even some of the greats of IndyCar that came back to the sport after racing in F1 haven’t been able to win Indy. Alonso may be setting himself on too high of a pedestal here. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is in with a chance to win, especially seeing as how he is paired with Indy stalwarts Andretti Autosports, but based off of what we’ve heard from Alonso, this is a one off. And Indy doesn’t always give you her love on the first date.
But what does this mean for both IndyCar and F1? Could we see more crossover between the sports like we did back in the old days? And does this mean that IndyCar is starting to get a little bit of its ‘street cred’ back it had in the 80s and 90s? Well, starting with the latter, yes and no. There will never be the mass appeal of IndyCar like there was back in the days before the split. I hate to admit it, I do. I would love nothing more than to see those numbers return to the sport, but the fact of the matter is that NASCAR is now too well entrenched in the US for anything to topple it. IndyCar will be a niche market for the foreseeable future. That does not mean that it hasn’t gotten better. The racing has improved ten-fold in the past several years and the last several 500s have been some of the most exciting I have ever seen. Drivers may now be looking to follow Alonso’s lead and try their hand at IndyCar where they know they are on a relatively equal playing field with those around them.
But, the age old problem still arises. Indianapolis and Monaco are on the same weekend. What do you do? Well, the new F1 overlords, Liberty Media, have made no secret of the fact that they would love nothing more than to grab a bigger piece of the American market. This may be their chance. Monaco is traditionally held the last weekend in May, the same as Indy. But Monaco does not have the national holiday tied to it like Indy does with Memorial Day, so it is far easier to move. Furthermore, thanks to the inclusion of the Indy GP on the IndyCar schedule, the entire month of May is no longer devoted solely to the running of the Indianapolis 500. As such, drivers need only to be present at the speedway for the better part of three weeks. If Liberty sees fit, they could move Monaco back a week, to the first week of June, shuffle the calendar around a bit, and allow for a full open slot for drivers to compete at Indianapolis. Judging by the reaction in the paddock after the Alonso announcement, interest in the race is high, but very few drivers would ever consider bailing on Monaco to compete. If Liberty, however, is able to make the schedule work, how exciting would it be if teams and drivers alike started jumping across the pond to take place the most historic race of all time?