The Case for… Fernando Alonso at the Indy 500

Each week, in the Scorecard section near the front of the magazine, Sports Illustrated runs a one-page column called, “The Case for…” Recently, I pitched them an idea for the section related to Fernando Alonso’s upcoming run at the Indianapolis 500 and how it is not just a throwback to the golden age of racing, but perhaps also a glimpse of the sport’s future.

Anyway, the mag already had their coverage planned for Alonso and the 500 (and it sounds like it will be pretty good), but I still think my piece is worth sharing. So here it is:

The Case for… Fernando Alonso at the Indy 500

Formula One star Fernando Alonso is making his IndyCar debut this weekend at the Indianapolis 500 instead of racing for his McLaren team at the Monaco Grand Prix. He has never raced on an oval before, and now he will be thrown into the deep end at the historic Brickyard.

The difference between Alonso and other Indy rookies, of course, is that the 35-year-old Spaniard has already proven himself as one of the best drivers in the world. The Indy 500 is a chance to burnish a legacy which, despite his two F1 world championships and 32 grand prix victories (sixth all-time), has not added much silverware lately thanks to some uncompetitive cars.

With his McLaren trailing around near the back of the F1 field for the last three years, Indy offers Alonso a chance for something all racing drivers crave: close, wheel-to-wheel action. But there is also something more. Only one man, Graham Hill, has ever won the Triple Crown of Motorsport (and you thought the thoroughbred Triple Crown was rare!), consisting of Indy, Monaco and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Alonso has already won (twice) in the serpentine streets on the Cote d’Azur, so a victory at Indy—however unlikely it might be—would put him in rarefied company. Only six men other than Hill have even won two of the three Triple Crown races. Current IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya is one of them, his Crown missing only Le Mans.

Alonso’s Indy cameo has been derided in some quarters as a publicity stunt, but it should be hailed as a throwback to the golden years of motor racing when drivers appeared in different series all over the world, all the time. And while many drivers known primarily for their F1 careers have raced in the Indy 500, few have done it as current grand prix drivers in the midst of the season.

The F1 world championship was established in 1950 and, curiously enough, the 500 counted as an official round for the first decade. Although a few grand prix stars—including Nino Farina, Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio—entered occasionally, they did not find much success on the Speedway banking.

In the 1960s, though, ingenious car designer Colin Chapman crossed the Atlantic with his Lotus team and its equally brilliant driver, Jim Clark. In 1963, on the way to his first F1 title, the Scot qualified fifth at Indy and finished second to Parnelli Jones. A year later, he put his Lotus on pole and led 14 laps before a broken suspension ended his race.

Finally, in 1965, it all came together for Clark. Despite high hopes for a second F1 crown, he skipped Monaco for Indy (like Alonso, in the face of some criticism) where he qualified second and led 190 laps en route to a ground-breaking victory. As a postscript, he returned to Europe, won the next five grands prix to go with a season-opening win before Indy and clinched the drivers’ championship with three races remaining.

While Alonso doesn’t have an F1 title chase to look forward to this year, he is one of the few men in modern F1 who might—might—be mentioned in the same breath as Clark.

And aside from its throwback appeal to those years when sex was safe and motor racing was dangerous, as Jackie Stewart, another F1 champ and Indy veteran, is fond of saying, Alonso’s shot at the 500 perhaps offers a glimpse of the future.

Racing fans are notoriously tribal, partial to their chosen series, but a webcast of Alonso’s first Indy test drew two million unique viewers, with the UK accounting for a larger share of those eyeballs than any other region (for comparison, the race itself drew six million viewers on ABC in 2016). As all the big racing series struggle with declining viewership, cross-promotion to draw in other armchair racers seems a promising avenue to pursue in the ratings battle.

If a couple million extra viewers worldwide tune in to the Indy race to watch Alonso, chances are some will like what they see and come back for more. Likewise, with all the hype surrounding this shaggy Spanish superstar, some IndyCar fans may crawl out of bed a bit earlier on a Sunday morning to catch a grand prix and see what all the fuss is about.

As for actually winning the race and adding that second jewel to his Crown, Alonso is a dark horse, but he doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. Alexander Rossi was an F1 driver before moving to IndyCar last year and stealing a shock win in his first try at the 500. Still, the Brickyard is a hell of a place to first dip your toes in the rough-and-tumble world of oval racing.

(Featured image via McLaren Honda Andretti on Twitter)


One comment

  1. Debbie · · Reply

    Interesting article, Matthew – I didn’t realize there’d been so much cross-over from F1 to Indy racing – always new info for me! Well-written as always

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