F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

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Fernando Alonso’s ambition is behind his Indy 500 decision

Fernando Alonso’s jettisoning of the Monaco Grand Prix in favour of contesting the Indy 500 in a McLaren-entered Andretti Autosport car rather took the F1 world’s breath away when it was announced on the eve of the Bahrain Grand Prix. 

In an interview with this magazine last year he revealed how he would like to chase motor racing’s triple crown – victories in the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours – but the assumption then was it would be something he’d attend to after his F1 career was over. Instead, he’s taking time out of his campaign in the woefully uncompetitive McLaren-Honda to make a start on that ambition. 

The underperformance of the Honda F1 power unit in what was widely expected to be the breakthrough year to competitiveness has been particularly tough to bear for Alonso, given the circumstances of his career and its ticking clock. Quite predictably, his frustration has been obvious. So, with two Monaco Grands Prix long ago under his belt he’s effectively admitting there’s little to lose in missing an F1 race to begin chasing that longer-term aim. 

What is striking about his reasoning is the importance he places upon the record books. “If I want to be the best driver in the world there are two options: I win eight Formula 1 world championships, one more than Michael, which is very unlikely; the second one is to win different series in different moments of my career and be a driver that can race and win in any car, in any series. So, that’s very challenging – but attractive as well.”

This is a driver who with just eight more points spread between the critical moments would already be a quintuple world champion rather than a double. But the career stats began to diverge from the level of his ability with his misjudgement at Hungary in 2007. He’s been trying to recover from that mis-step ever since. Which has led him at 35 to have missed out on the two most recent generations of dominant machinery while Vettel and Hamilton have racked up numbers that dwarf his. 

He is an intensely proud man in a very Spanish way, understanding that to achieve what he has done from his modest background is amazing in itself, but still driven for more. It matters to him – maybe beyond anything else – that his abilities are recognised and understood. When he first arrived in F1 and was asked about his ambition, it was along the lines of, “I want to be the one the other drivers look at and think, ‘Yes, he’s the best’.”   

The development represents an interesting dynamic between Alonso and McLaren. It indicates a team going out of its way to keep its star driver happy and in a way you sense wouldn’t have happened under Ron Dennis’s stewardship. Asked if Ron would have allowed it Alonso replied, “I guess not. Zak [Brown] is a man with a bigger vision than other team bosses that I had. He sees motor sports differently, sees McLaren bigger, not only concentrated on F1.” It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea from McLaren’s perspective as a marketing ploy as well as a way of keeping Alonso engaged long enough to still be there by the time McLaren finally has a competitive car. 

“I’d be happy to talk with him if he asked,” said 1995 Indy 500 winner and ’97 world champion Jacques Villeneuve. “He’s got a lot to fit into a short time. You need to have time to keep going away to think about it and he’s not going to get much chance to do that. He’ll have no problem with the pace, but running in traffic and stuff it’s going to be more of a challenge. I think it’s great he’s doing it. What I really don’t get is those F1 drivers who are saying, ‘Oh I’d never do that, it’s too dangerous.’ Jesus, what are you a racing driver for then? Yeah, it’s more dangerous than F1 but so what? And I tell you what, it’s a lot safer than it was. In the ’90s you’d be thinking, ‘If I hit the wall will I die or get hurt.’ Now they have the soft barriers there and tougher cars, and when I went back there it was more, ‘If I hit the wall will I get hurt or just bruised?’ But still that wall is always there – you cannot forget it and that’s what will make the biggest impression on him, I think.” 

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