Fernando Alonso has plenty of laurels on which he could rest.
Two-time Formula One world champion, three-time runner-up. Thirty-two grand prix wins. Fan favorite worldwide. The 35-year-old Spaniard had no need to venture outside his comfort zone of F1 racing.
Yet it is that drive that pushes the elite to take it one step further that burns inside. Which is why Alonso was announced today to drive for Andretti Autosport in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The news has taken the sports world by storm, even if Alonso had publicly stated his desire to compete in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” as long as two years ago.
That desire to be “the best.”
“As a driver, if you want to be the best, if you want to be considered the best, you need to be able to drive all type of cars in all different series and be able to be competitive in all of them and possible to win all of them,” Alonso said during an international teleconference following this morning’s bold announcement. “After successful F1 championships, I think the opportunity to race in the Indy 500, the opportunity to race one day in the future in Le Mans – that dream of the Triple Crown, winning all the big three – is something very attractive from a driver’s point of view.”
The possibility for Alonso to make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut next month was turned into reality with the assistance of Honda – which supplies engines to both Andretti Autosport and Alonso’s McLaren F1 team – and Zak Brown, the new executive director of McLaren Technology Group who was based for years in suburban Indianapolis running the former JMI Marketing that had clients in F1, INDYCAR, NASCAR and elsewhere.
Brown talked with Alonso about his desire to run Indy and Le Mans during F1’s season opener in Australia two weeks ago. From there, Brown contacted Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman and Company that owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR, about possible available seats for the 500 with Honda teams.
Miles then put Brown in contact with Michael Andretti, CEO of the Andretti Autosport that has four Indy 500 victories including Alexander Rossi’s historic win last year. When Brown and Alonso revisited the subject over dinner Friday at the Chinese Grand Prix, Brown said the ride was available if Alonso was ready for the challenge.
“Then the dinner got real serious because it was time to make a decision,” Brown said. “He said, ‘Let me sleep on it,’ he slept on it and then he told me Saturday morning, ‘I want to do it.’”
For Alonso, the decision was not difficult.
“The interest is very clear,” he said. “It’s one of the best races in the world, one of the most prestigious races in the world.”
It was also made easier by the fact that the McLaren-Honda team is struggling in F1, so any hopes of a third championship this year are already out the window. So, Alonso can afford to skip the famous Grand Prix of Monaco that takes place the same day, May 28, as the Indianapolis 500.
“If we were fighting for the world championship, we cannot afford to lose 25 points possibility (for winning at Monaco),” Alonso said. “But we are not in that position unfortunately and this possibility, I think, is a win-win situation for McLaren as a team and the partnership of McLaren-Honda is reinforced with this commitment.
“And for me also is a great opportunity to experience this race. It’s good also for the sport. I think, the motorsports fans, they have to love it. For the Indy it’s good news, for the Formula One it’s good news.”
In an Indianapolis news conference, Miles and Doug Boles, president of IMS, were overjoyed with the announcement. Miles called Alonso the “gold standard of motorsport drivers around the world.” Boles said, “Getting Fernando Alonso to come and run here is a spectacular moment.”
The driver, however, harbors no illusions with what lies ahead. He has driven at IMS on the road course in F1, but has never been on an oval. He is a rookie, albeit one with a champion’s pedigree.
“I will try to listen as much as I can and to learn from everybody because it is a completely different series and a different driving technique that I will have to learn very quick,” said Alonso, adding one of the first to congratulate him was Juan Pablo Montoya, the former F1 driver and two-time Indy 500 winner who will compete as well next month for Team Penske.
“I need to learn many procedures like the restarts, the pit stop sequences, many things that will be new to me apart of obviously the car, and racing on the ovals is definitely a big challenge. It is a step forward in my career if I want to be the best driver in the world. I need to learn and I need to know how driving those cars on ovals at the maximum speed, driving so close to each other, respecting each other.
“It’s something that I’m looking forward (to).”
So is the rest of the motorsports world.