Monaco – check. Le Mans – check. Indianapolis 500 – unchecked. Fernando Alonso’s quest to become only the second person after Graham Hill to clinch motorsport’s elusive triple crown is two-thirds completed. His best bet to achieve this goal is to head to the IndyCar series full-time, and it is there that he will have his best shot at achieving an Indy 500 win.
For years now, Alonso has been trundling around at the back or in the midfield in McLaren cars which are simply not up to scratch. With the exception of becoming an internet sensation with his radio communication or deckchair shenanigans, he has achieved nothing in the past three-and-a-bit seasons.
It’s clear that the top teams do not want him. They all have their respective young driver programmes, and Alonso has a reputation for poor team dynamics. McLaren’s Formula 1 team will not turn its fortunes around overnight, and no other team appears set to challenge the top three teams – not least until the next drastic regulation overhaul. For the time being, there is nothing left for Alonso to achieve, bar some points finishes and maybe the odd podium here and there. Hardly a justified reward for what many regard as one of the best drivers in the world.
Alonso should leave F1. Or, at least, take a few years away.
A driver of his talent could well successfully make a comeback. Only Alain Prost and Niki Lauda have taken time away from F1 in between winning championships in the past half-century. Other drivers have spectacularly failed in their comebacks – not limited to arguably the greatest of all in Michael Schumacher. Comebacks are risky but have every potential to enhance a driver’s reputation further than before.
IndyCar is in a rich place right now. Alonso himself credited the series and its drivers for the level of talent and competition within it – and he is not wrong. Every year for the past decade has featured a championship which has gone to the wire, and it is not uncommon for many drivers to win races over the course of the year.
And this is where it would become arguably more difficult for Alonso than was the case for then-reigning world champion Nigel Mansell in 1993. Mansell raced in CART in its then-heyday with equipment on a better scale than many of the cars in the field and against some drivers who certainly fell under the ‘pay driver’ bracket.
Current-day IndyCar is not like that. Every team there is strong. Every driver there is strong, or at least comes with some sort of pedigree in other formulae. It also has some of the best and most versatile drivers in the world – Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, Robert Wickens, Ryan Hunter-Reay, just to name a handful. These guys would not be a pushover to any driver, regardless of what reputation they come with.
That is not the only reason why Alonso will not have it easy. A change of bodykit for this year would mean that if Alonso was to race next year, he will be without the sort of experience that his rivals will have. Testing is limited in IndyCar and is very limited at a number of tracks on the calendar.
While Wickens has been sensational as a rookie, it is difficult to not overlook the fact that the change of bodykit and the reset that comes with it has shaken the order up and has helped rookies. Other rookies – Zach Veach, Jordan King and Matheus Leist, all also have had their moments in the sun this season, while rookies in the years with the previous bodykit did not feature at the front all that frequently.
McLaren is exploring the possibility to return to IndyCar full time – harking a return back to the 1970s. That may be in partnership with Andretti Autosport or with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, or maybe even on its own.
Even if staying with McLaren isn’t in Alonso’s interest, he is unlikely to be lacking in options. All three of the series’ juggernaut teams – Andretti, Penske and Ganassi, would likely at least have interest in having him onboard. If all else fails, he could even join Ed Carpenter as a driver-owner.
Given McLaren’s F1 underachievement in 2018, Alonso arguably should have made his IndyCar switch already. It would have ruled out a full-time World Endurance Championship campaign, but it would have given him a solid shot at the IndyCar championship this year, as well as the 500, because everybody would have been starting from pretty much the same page. That will not be the case next year.
Alonso could well end up securing both the IndyCar and WEC championships in the same season. But winning the 500 and winning the series require two different skillsets.
Yes, Alonso was magnificent on his first attempt at the Indy 500, but he also had as much testing as was feasible in the run-up to that race. He had more mileage than much of the field, and that was a contributing factor to his performance.
A week after the Indy 500 – the series heads to Detroit for a double-header. There is just one practice session in the tightly-scheduled weekend before heading straight into a shortened qualifying session on the Saturday. If your car doesn’t work ‘straight out the box’, it is difficult to recover during the weekend.
After that, they head to Texas for more speedway action. Again, a completely different kettle of fish to the previous weeks. It is obstacles such as that which is why IndyCar drivers must be so versatile, and why a championship challenge is so hard to maintain throughout a season.
Scheduling conflicts would unlikely affect Alonso in 2019 with his duel WEC ‘superseason’ campaign and IndyCar. The Sebring WEC race should not clash with IndyCar at St. Petersburg given a few IndyCar drivers will be participating in the IMSA race that weekend, while the Spa WEC race is in early May. Le Mans does not clash with an IndyCar race these days, as a few regulars participate in the 24-hour race.
Despite his F1 background – make no assumption that Alonso would be the favourite to win on the road and street courses. Mansell famously won just once on a street track in Indycar, with his other wins coming exclusively on ovals. Many of IndyCar’s road and street courses are also worlds apart from the smooth, repetitive, flat tracks on F1’s calendar.
Alonso is in a stage of his career where he will be thinking about his legacy on the motorsport world. At 36, he still has plenty of years left in him, especially outside of F1. Those who can place greatest races in the world on their CVs are ranked among the immortals. Securing all three sticks a driver in a bracket which is likely to be among the all-time greatest.
While Alonso is able to replicate Hill’s triple crown success (and now can do so before twice Indy 500 winner and Monaco GP winner Juan Pablo Montoya), he is surely fit enough, motivated enough and talented enough to also achieve something truly unprecedented – winning the Formula 1 World Championship, the IndyCar Series, and the World Endurance Championship. Mansell, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve have won an Indycar and a F1 championship, and no driver has ever won all three.
Who knows, maybe for 2021, Alonso could return to F1 after winning all he has desired elsewhere and may just finally secure that elusive third world championship he so desperately craves.