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APRIL 18, 2017

Would you miss the Monaco Grand Prix?


Fernando Alonso, Spanish GP 2017
© The Cahier Archive

If one of the things McLaren targeted when it was decided Fernando Alonso would give the Monaco Grand Prix a miss to try his hands in the Indy 500 was media exposure, then well done to Zak Brown and his staff. From Wednesday to Friday in Bahrain, the Spaniard's decision was the focal point of the paddock but, of course, when qualifying started, no one thought about it anymore for even one second and it was the Mercedes-Ferrari battle that caught everyone's attention.

Over the last five days there have been plenty of stories about this surprising announcement, some tracking in the history books other drivers who did the same thing, others looking for drivers who did both the Indy 500 and the entire Formula One season in the same year. My favourite story, is, of course, the 1977 saga of Clay Regazzoni, who tried to do Monaco and Indy at the same time but failed.

Forgive me for getting sidetracked here but it's a fascinating story that can be told in few words. Racing for the small Ensign team, the flamboyant Swiss decided he wanted to have a go at the Indy 500 and found a drive there. The trouble was that qualifying for the American race took place on the Saturday and Sunday of the Monaco Grand Prix, so Regazzoni needed perfect days in both tracks to be sure to make it to both grids.

With first qualifying in Monaco being on Thursday, Regazzoni hoped to set a good enough time that would allow him to qualify - there were 26 drivers vying for 20 places on the grid - even without running on the final qualifying session, on Saturday. And he needed to qualify for the Indy 500 on the first day of running, to be able to catch a "red eye" flight to Europe and arrive in Monaco on Sunday morning, in time for the race‘‚    ‚ ® ¡ Optimistic, I know, but then optimistic was Regazzoni's general attitude towards life.

Not surprisingly everything went wrong, as Regazzoni was not that quick on Thursday and was bumped off the grid on Saturday, Ensign taking the precaution of running Jacky Ickx in his car, the Belgian qualifying 17th to finish the race in 10th place. Stateside, the Swiss also failed to guarantee a spot on the grid for the Indy 500 on Saturday, so he had to stay, anyway, in Indianapolis to secure a place among the 33 starters the next day.

Compared to Regazzoni's adventure, Alonso's looks really tame, as there's no way he can be in two places at the same time. But that he'd sacrifice what should be his best chance to score good points this year to go for something that is totally alien to his motor racing culture, is, at least, bizarre.

The Spaniard admitted in Bahrain that if his McLaren-Honda was competitive, he wouldn't opt out of a Grand Prix and it seems quite clear that he's doing what he is doing as much for his own enjoyment and the desire to look for new challenges as to his will to punish Honda for the lack of performance and reliability. You will have noticed that apart from formal statements on the press release where the announcement was made, the Japanese have been remarkably quiet about this American adventure from the driver they have been paying in full for more than three years.

Lacking motivation to drive an uncompetitive car, willing to try something new, maybe lured by the fact Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500 at first attempt last year without ever doing anything amazing in Europe, and willing to publicly humiliate Honda, Alonso is getting what he wanted. But what is McLaren getting from all this, you may, rightfully wonder?

For as much as Zak Brown talks about taking McLaren back to Indy, where it was a race winner more than 40 years ago, the only motivation the team may have is only one: to keep Fernando Alonso as happy as possible, in the hope he signs an extension of his current contract and accepts to race for the Woking-based team for another two years. For as much faith Brown, Boullier and the rest of the team surely has in Stoffel Vandoorne's talent and potential, the Belgian is not yet experienced enough to lead the team and, clearly, there's no other top driver willing to drive for McLaren-Honda in the near future. Therefore, keeping Alonso is the only way to secure a top driver, capable of getting results once he gets his hands on a competitive car, but also a powerful sponsor magnet at a time McLaren desperately needs to find replacements for the many sponsors lost in the last four years.

At the same time Brown must be hoping Alonso commits to a post-Grand Prix future with McLaren, maybe to be part of an American program and, most certainly, to run in GT with the company's latest car, including having a go at Le Mans. But I suspect unless McLaren builds an LPM1 that can win the race overall, the Spanish driver won't be interested, for he keeps mentioning the Triple Crown and class wins don't qualify for that‘‚    ‚ ® ¡

While the relationship between McLaren and Fernando Alonso may actually become stronger with this American adventure, I doubt Honda will be delighted with the Spaniard's behaviour and, seemingly, lack of commitment to their Formula One effort. McLaren's willingness to accommodate Alonso's desire may also affect what is already a difficult relationship between team and manufacturer, so the long-term effects of this decision taken, more or less, on the spur of the moment, may only become obvious to all further down the line rather than on the Sunday of the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500.