Twelve months ago, Fernando Alonso was the biggest story in motorsport. A current Formula 1 driver missing the most iconic race of the F1 season in order to make their first attempt at the Indianapolis 500 was as big as a racing story gets.
Now, he’s back in Monaco with a car capable of pretty much exactly the same of what it could have achieved a year ago. McLaren will target best of the rest status behind the top three teams, and seventh place is about as high as his sights are realistically set.
“It’s a different and very unique layout and weekend, but at the same time there are not many surprises here,” the Spaniard said on Wednesday. “It is never a place where you have a midfield team winning a race, or a small team winning a race or the pole position.
“There is always a lot of expectation in Monaco but it is always a Mercedes, a Ferrari or a Red Bull on pole position. Three of these six drivers have been on the podium in the last editions, and I think it is going to be quite similar again.”
Alonso doesn’t always think before he speaks when it comes to such proclamations, given that Monaco was the scene of some of the sport’s most memorable races – think Olivier Panis winning for Ligier in 1996 – and Sergio Perez was on the podium for Force India here two years ago. But he has a point.
Such is the margin between the top three and the rest that even at Monaco there is little chance of a major upset. And it wasn’t supposed to be this way for McLaren. This year, armed with a Renault power unit, the team was meant to be fighting at the front for podiums. Regular wins or a championship challenge was always likely to be too much to expect, but Monaco would have been a place where the best results were possible.
Instead, there has been just one Q3 appearance, and Renault has moved ahead of McLaren in the battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship, while Haas also seems to have a quicker car. So it’s not just for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix that Alonso’s targets have to be realistic, it’s for the full season.
At Indianapolis last year, Alonso could win, and he knew it. The machinery he was being given, the support he had, the tools were all there to have a good chance of winning the race. He hasn’t been able to say the same in F1 for five years now.
Alonso has a contract for next year, but when asked if his options for next year are limited to McLaren only, he replied: “I don’t know.
“It’s too early to think about that. I didn’t spend one second thinking about that, and after the summer I will decide.”
That suggest a decision needs to be made, and you might be expecting me to say he should leave McLaren. But I’m not going to.
Alonso should stay at McLaren – just not racing for the F1 team.
CEO Zak Brown has made no secret of his desire to branch out into other motorsport categories with McLaren, suggesting that Indianapolis last year was the precursor to a full-time IndyCar commitment.
“McLaren has a long history in additional forms of motorsport whether that was CanAm, IndyCar, we’ve won Le Mans, and so that is something with the new regulations coming out for World Endurance (Championship) we’re participating in those meetings and reviewing what that looks like,” he said recently.
“We’re a fan of the Le Mans brand. We did the Indy 500 last year. That’s something that in the right circumstances… North America is an important market for us and we’re a fan of IndyCar racing, so as we look at the budget cap [in F1] and how do you manage that, looking at additional forms of racing is something that we’re considering.”
The new WEC rules don’t come into force until 2021 at the earliest – the same as the next major change to the F1 regulations and the aforementioned budget cap – but IndyCar is a much more immediate prospect.
As RACER has already reported, a full-time Andretti tie-up is a possibility for as early as 2019, and if it comes together, Alonso should lead the charge.
I didn’t think an Indy switch was right for Fernando this year. He’s clearly desperate to add to the two F1 world championships he currently has, and the change of power unit supplier meant he simply had to see how McLaren fared in its new guise. He’d have been left kicking himself if he switched to IndyCar and then saw his former F1 team winning races.
But next year, as part of McLaren, it is the right move. The evidence he has from the F1 outfit is that the team is not capable of winning races in the near future, and the only way he is going to win that third world title before 2021 is with Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull.
None of those teams are available to Alonso, so the blunt likelihood is he has very little chance of winning the championship in the next three years.
But 2021 offers the chance of a reset, and McLaren and Renault are the two teams best-placed to take advantage of the opportunity to upset the current top three dominance. By then, Alonso will be 39 – turning 40 mid-season – so realistically he needs to already be in place at one of those two teams if he’s going to have a shot.
It’s no good for Alonso or his reputation to spend the next three years scrapping for seventh places. McLaren might not have provided him with a good enough F1 car this year, but in IndyCar, last year’s experience tells him that a move across the Atlantic would giving him a much higher chance of winning on a regular basis and fighting for a title.
With his Toyota WEC seat representing two strong chances at winning Le Mans, racing in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 would provide him an even better opportunity of adding the Indy 500 title to his quest for the triple crown, all while missing out on very little in F1.
Of course he would have an even better chance Stateside in an already established team rather than a new set-up, but his standing and influence within McLaren would mean he could spearhead a new venture – bringing major attention with it – and then return to the grand prix fold in 2021 if McLaren makes a big step forward.
If it doesn’t progress in F1 but he’s scratched his Indy itch, then there could be a McLaren WEC project to get involved with at that point in his career. Alonso could effectively take his pick of whichever of the three categories he wants to race in, all without having to close the door on the others.
Jumping ship is something Alonso has done at the wrong time far too often in his career. Instead of repeating that error, it’s the perfect time to sail the same ship on a different sea.