McLaren have announced that Fernando Alonso will miss this year’s race in Monaco, and will instead race in the Indianapolis 500 which takes place on the same day.
The 35-year-old Spaniard will race a McLaren-entered, Honda-powered car in the legendary IndyCar oval race, prepared by former McLaren driver Michael Andretti’s crack Andretti Autosport team - winners of the race last year with former F1 driver Alexander Rossi.
McLaren say that they will confirm the identity of the driver who will race Alonso’s car in Monaco in due course, though the natural favourite would be Jenson Button, who remains under contract to the team.
“I’m immensely excited that I’ll be racing in this year’s Indy 500, with McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport,” said Alonso, whose participation will mark the first time the Woking-based team have entered the event in 38 years.
I’ve never raced an IndyCar car before, and neither have I ever driven on a super-speedway, but I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast
“The Indy 500 is one of the most famous races on the global motorsport calendar, rivalled only by the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Monaco Grand Prix [which Fernando has won twice, one of those victories at the wheel of a McLaren (in 2007)], and it’s of course a regret of mine that I won’t be able to race at Monaco this year. But Monaco will be the only 2017 Grand Prix I’ll be missing, and I’ll be back in the cockpit of the McLaren-Honda MCL32 for the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal in early June.
“I’ve never raced an IndyCar car before, and neither have I ever driven on a super-speedway, but I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast. I’ve watched a lot of IndyCar action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220mph [354km/h].
"I realise I’ll be on a steep learning curve, but I’ll be flying to Indianapolis from Barcelona immediately after the Spanish Grand Prix, practising our McLaren-Honda-Andretti car at Indy from May 15th onwards, hopefully clocking up a large number of miles every day, and I know how good the Andretti Autosport guys are. I’ll be proud to race with them, and I intend to mine their knowledge and expertise for as much info as I possibly can.
"I’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix twice, and it’s one of my ambitions to win the Triple Crown [the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours], which has been achieved by only one driver in the history of motorsport: Graham Hill. 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."
McLaren’s executive director Zak Brown hailed power unit partner Honda’s influence in the project saying: “This project wouldn’t have been possible without Honda’s support and encouragement. And our car – the McLaren-Honda-Andretti – will be decked out in the papaya orange livery made famous by our founder Bruce McLaren, and in which Johnny Rutherford drove McLaren IndyCars to Indy 500 victory in both 1974 and 1976.”
The team he’ll be racing for won the race last year, using the same Honda engine, and he’s the best racing driver in the world. That’s quite a compelling combination...
Zak Brown on Alonso
Speaking on whether Alonso had a chance to win the famous race, Brown said: “Well, I wouldn’t be so silly as to make any such rash prediction, but I expect him to be in the mix.
“Put it this way: the team he’ll be racing for won the race last year, using the same Honda engine, and he’s the best racing driver in the world. That’s quite a compelling combination. So, yes, as I say, he’ll be in the mix.
“OK, equally, he’ll have his work cut out to acclimatise to running at super-speedway velocities, but ultimately it’s quality that counts in all forms of motorsport, and Fernando is very definitely quality. He’s ballsy and brave too. Also, the differences between Formula 1 cars and IndyCars are less marked now than they were in the past. Formula 1 cars weigh about the same as IndyCars these days – just north of 700kg [1543lb] – and Formula 1 cars actually develop more power than IndyCar cars do, whereas it used to be the other way around in the past.”
Mansour Ojjeh, executive committee principal of the McLaren Technology Group, hinted that McLaren could look to branch out even further than the Indy 500 in the future.
"The Indy 500 is the only IndyCar race we’ll be entering this year, but we may possibly repeat that in years to come and it’s just possible that we may even run a full-works McLaren IndyCar operation at some point in the future," he said.
From 1950 until 1960, the Indianapolis 500 was a round of the F1 world championship. McLaren first entered it in 1970, and took pole at the Brickyard a year later. 14-time Grand Prix starter Mark Donohue won the race in a privateer McLaren M16B in 1972, while Johnny Rutherford added a pair of full-time works wins in 1974 and 1976.
Honda meanwhile may have struggled in F1 this year, but they have powered the first two cars to have won races in IndyCar this season.
The expert's view
The son of 1978 F1 world champion Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti won 42 IndyCar races and the 1991 title, and also scored one podium in 13 races for McLaren in F1 in 1993. So having driven in both series, and run former F1 driver Alexander Rossi to a rookie victory in the 2016 Indy 500, how does he rate Alonso’s chances?
“We've been working very closely in the planning of this new partnership and I believe we've laid the foundation for a successful month of May,” he said. “Fernando’s lack of experience on super-speedways is not of concern to me. I do believe that the Indianapolis 500 is one of the best places for a rookie to start because there is the opportunity for so much practice time on the track - and, as we have demonstrated, it can be won by a rookie. Fernando is a great talent and I have full confidence that he will represent very strongly for McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.”