What Alonso’s Indy assault means for F1

In a fascinating development for Formula One, Fernando Alonso, one of its biggest stars, will contest the world-famous Indianapolis 500 — at the expense of the world-famous Monaco Grand Prix.

Sporting-political bombshells seldom come bigger, and McLaren’s announcement that it would be releasing its talismanic driver from his F1 duties on the biggest weekend of the year sent the sport into meltdown.

The sporting prospect of the switch is obviously mouth-watering for any motorsport fan.

When once the career of a driver was flexible enough to allow category switching, today it is a rarity. Nico Hülkenberg was the last F1 driver to do so when he sensationally became a winning driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2015.

Allowing Formula One drivers to compete in other series is not only positive, it should be encouraged. Far from Bernie Ecclestone’s approach to schedule a grand prix on Le Mans weekend — successfully so in 2016, but undone this year after complaints by the affected Azerbaijani hosts — Formula One drivers showing off their skills in new arenas around the world should be embraced as a fantastic advertisement for the sport.

Just as Hülkenberg’s first-time victory should have been paraded as a Formula One driver conquering the world’s most fearsome race on his first attempt, so too should Alonso’s attempt at the Brickyard, where he will surely acquit himself well, be heralded as an example of F1’s best showing the world what’s what.

Tantalising further is the idea of Fernando Alonso becoming the second driver, after Graham Hill, to win motorsport’s ‘triple crown’ — the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500, and 24 Hours of Le Mans — which is the Spaniard’s stated aim.

“I’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix twice, and it’s one of my ambitions to win the triple crown,” he said in a statement. “It’s a tough challenge, but I’m up for it.

“I don’t know when I’m going to race at Le Mans, but one day I intend to. I’m only 35: I’ve got plenty of time for that.”

So the sporting credentials of such a move speak for themselves — but the political questions of the move are equally compelling.

Why would a Formula One team release its number one driver on the biggest and most sponsor-driven weekend of the year, not to mention the weekend the ailing McLaren team has its best shot at scoring points?

Could it be that McLaren is keeping the man it promised the world sweet in the a contract year? Perhaps telling is Alonso’s grin in the announcement video, which is in stark contrast to the stoic grimace worn in the F1 paddock as he faces the McLaren-Honda reality.

With drives at Mercedes, Ferrari, and Renault all opening in 2018, Fernando has all the bargaining power in McLaren-Honda’s quest to keep on the books the driver central to the project.

McLaren might be able to take the front foot by making its own entry powered by a Honda engine and operated by one-time McLaren driver Michael Andretti’s Andretti Autosport, but the questions exist beyond mere reasoning.

For example, who will replace Alonso at what ranks amongst the world’s most difficult circuits?

Would Jenson Button return despite his satisfaction in departure last season? Could McLaren back its Formula Two juniors Nobuharu Matsushita and Nyck de Vries, or would the pressure to perform on F1’s most famous track without the benefit of a full-time drive count against both? There is no easy answer.

Of further intrigue is whether the sport’s new commercial rights holder was kept in the loop that one of its key driving assets would be absent from its most high-profile event. While Chase Carey, Sean Bratches, and Ross Brawn would no doubt see the aforementioned marketing value in F1 drivers competing abroad, surely skipping a championship round — the so-called jewel in the crown every driver supposedly wants to race in, no less — devalues that particular grand prix.

Perhaps a trickle-down benefit could be greater cooperation between series to ensure the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500, and 24 Hours of Le Mans don’t clash, thereby allowing drivers the potential to try their hand at all three.

Surely no motorsport fan could be upset with such an outcome, and indeed Alonso’s inclusion in this year’s Indy 500 will be of great interest to all given he was unlikely to play any major role in Monaco with the equipment at his disposal.

Regardless, one must consider exactly what message Alonso’s absence sends on F1’s weekend of weekends.