IndyCar isn’t the answer McLaren’s looking for
After decades of specialisation and professionalisation pushed the various forms of motorsport only further apart, the world of racing suddenly appears closer than ever before, in part thanks to Fernando Alonso.
Alonso is perhaps his generation’s best racing talent, but the Spaniard has become so fed up with his uncompetitive F1 lot at McLaren — for three years thanks to unreliable Honda power, now thanks to a poor chassis — that he has been forced into the arms of various racing surrogates to fill the winning void.
There are few categories Alonso won’t flirt with, with his highest-profile extra-F1 dalliance coming in May 2017 when he sensationally ditched the Monaco Grand Prix for a seat at IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500. He almost won it too, before — you just couldn’t write it — his Honda engine blew just 21 laps from the finish.
The 24 Hours of Daytona followed in February this year, which ended in brake failure 22 hours into the race, but in reality the American endurance event was a warm-up for the biggest road race of them all: the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend.
In 2018 Alonso is embarking on an ambitious two-series calendar, racing full seasons in Formula One with McLaren and in the World Endurance Championship with Toyota. At the moment he’s one race into a four-race string of events including this weekend’s 24-hour race, and he’s in the thick of eight races in 10 weekends.
It’s part of Alonso’s stated aim of winning the so-called ‘triple crown’ of motorsport — victory at the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and at Le Mans — and it’s a boon for motorsport fans, who will see one of motor racing’s foremost talents ply his trade on a number of different arenas.
For McLaren, however, it presents a problem.
Alonso’s journey to becoming a multi-discipline driver began last year, in the third season of woe for McLaren-Honda, with his most overt snub of team and sport so far: missing Formula One’s blue riband Monaco Grand Prix.
It was perhaps fair enough then given the season had been effectively written off anyway and given he was destined to be free of the troublesome chassis-engine pairing by either leaving or by the technical divorce that ultimately took place.
In 2018, however, Alonso’s strengthening talk of a life outside F1 is an effective vote of no confidence in the ailing team — and after the Canadian Grand Prix, where the Renault-powered Red Bull Racing lapped the Renault works team and where the Renault works team lapped Stoffel Vandoorne, the only finishing McLaren after Alonso retired with exhaust problems, it’s easy to understand why.
McLaren, despite protestations over the last three seasons, is at the low ebb, the starting point, of a rebuild. Technical and managerial reshuffles and restructures are in full swing, but recovery to podium contention, which was the team’s goal for this season, will not be swift.
Alonso will be 37 years old and out of contract at the end of the year, and with no frontrunning team willing to accommodate him, his decision to seek pastures new in search of a win is effectively made for him.
Conveniently enough, McLaren is also suddenly looking to broaden its horizons.
McLaren CEO Zak Brown, fresh from visiting the IndyCar paddock in Detroit the weekend before the Canadian Grand Prix, told reporters in Montreal that he’s “seriously considering” entering his team into the American series next season.
“We’re not done yet with our due diligence, but it’s looking favourable,” he said.
And his position on Alonso’s future with the team?
“He loves F1, loves WEC, did Daytona — so hopefully we’ll keep Fernando in the McLaren environment in some way, shape or form.”
Perhaps McLaren would’ve sought to grow its racing portfolio without Alonso, but the haste with which it’s making its next move seems aimed more at holding onto its driver than it does at making a sensible strategic decision.
IndyCar may not be the international and financially loose undertaking Formula One has become, but establishing a successful team, especially from the wrong side of the Atlantic, will be no small undertaking.
At a time when McLaren’s core business — competing in Formula One — is in perhaps the direst state it’s been in the team’s history, spreading Woking’s finite resources only thinner risks leaving neither project adequately attended and tarnishing further the lustre of the historic brand.
Surely focus and discipline are what’s required to restore McLaren to its winning ways, not diversions to distract from its struggles nor the pursuit of a talented but mercurial driver hurtling towards the twilight of his career.
Is holding onto Fernando Alonso worth risking putting off or scuppering altogether McLaren’s return to the front in Formula One?
One would’ve thought 52 years of F1 history would make the team greater than any one man, but we’ll presumably get our answer soon enough.