On Friday in Austin, Zak Brown finally confirmed that McLaren will not be entering the IndyCar Series full-time in 2019. I say “finally confirmed” but for so long it looked like it was all coming together. Then the decision was delayed, and delayed again, and finally the plug has been pulled. With it, a door closed on one of Fernando Alonso’s 2019 options.
Alonso’s confirmed plans for next year remain the final three races of the World Endurance Championship Super Season at Sebring, Spa and Le Mans. Aside from that he has nothing confirmed, and now a full IndyCar season — for McLaren at least — is off the table.
“I don’t have 21 races in F1 to travel around to, so with more free time I will come to the States… for a holiday. A little bit more,” Alonso teased at Circuit of The Americas.
“Let’s see. As I said many times, the Indy 500 is still very attractive, as it was last year, and after winning Le Mans this year, it’s even more attractive to try to achieve it in the short term. Still working on plans for next year, and as soon as they are finalized you will know.”
Indianapolis remains an option for McLaren as a one-off entry, but Alonso will need to look elsewhere for a full program should he want one.
As disappointing as that news is, Thursday in Austin had delivered an exciting exchange between some of the top drivers on the grid during the main press conference, and it all stemmed from Alonso’s attempt at the Indy 500 last year.
Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton were asked whether they would have a crack at the Brickyard. It’s a question we’ve heard before in Formula 1, especially around the time Alonso was packing his bags for Indianapolis. But 18 months ago, the responses were pretty lukewarm. This time around, there seemed to be more interest from drivers with increasing influence over their schedules.
“Yes and no,” Ricciardo said. “The thought of it sounds good. But ovals creep me out a little bit. I won’t lie.
“It would be cool. I don’t know. I would at least like to have a go, like maybe just a test. Let’s see how things go. But it was cool watching Fernando do it, don’t get me wrong, and part of me was trying to picture myself being there and doing it but … maybe one day.
“At the moment I don’t say it’s something I’m looking to do in the near future. I don’t know. Probably the older I get, the more scared I’ll become, so if it doesn’t happen now maybe it won’t ever happen. I don’t know.”
Hamilton — in between reeling off “Talladega Nights” references, much to Ricciardo’s amusement — agreed with the Australian, but it’s not IndyCar that seems to be grabbing his attention if he’s to follow Alonso’s lead…
“I would definitely like to try it as I’ve never really driven an oval before, and the cars are incredibly fast and I always want to go faster,” Hamilton said. “I probably will get a chance to have a go. I’m sure if I wanted to have a go I could, but naturally, growing up in Europe, it’s never been a series that you grew up aspiring to be in. It was always Formula 1, being it was the highest technology and – at least growing up – the thought was that it was the highest grade of drivers that you wanted to compete against. But they’ve got some great drivers there as well.
“I think I would prefer to try NASCAR. Watkins Glen, I’ve always wanted to have a go up there, beer cans on the side… I have driven a NASCAR years ago at Watkins Glen which was awesome, so that’s something I could do, potentially.
“I have no desire to do any other racing beyond Formula 1 if I’m really honest, but maybe that will change when [I] do stop, because you do it your whole life and temptation is always going to be there… I’m always going to be a racing driver at heart.”
Hamilton’s desire seems to be very much focused on what he will do after F1 rather than alongside it, but his NASCAR hints did appear semi-serious. Following those comments, Clint Bowyer was happy to explain how difficult it would be for the four-time world champion to tackle a Cup car.
“In today’s day and age it’s not easy,” Bowyer said. “You used to be able to do that a lot, but I think technology and everything has evolved so much in motorsports, the days of guys just getting in something else and raw talent being able to prevail are over.
“Can Lewis get in that thing and do good? Yes, and he would. But is he just gonna get in and dominate like he does over here? No chance. But my ass ain’t gonna come over here and do it either! If I’m going to be cocky enough to say he ain’t gonna come over there and dominate then I’m damn sure going to put it on record that I’m not gonna do it, either!”
The size of the F1 calendar really limits the potential for a driver to do something extra Stateside. It’s not that the free weekends aren’t there, but the lack of North American races means any races that don’t clash – and of course Indy and Monaco usually does – would likely require an extremely tough travel schedule.
That said, Alonso was in the mood to advocate both the 500 and a different challenge outside F1 itself.
“Well, they need to commit to the race,” Alonso said of Hamilton and Ricciardo. “I think if they just want to do a test they will never do the race after testing the car, because it feels quite bad. It feels quite difficult. The car is self-steering to the left, you go on the straights and you are turning right, and it feels very weird to drive the car. But then in the race, it is just a different thing.
“You wake up your competitive instinct and you forget about all these weird things that those cars have, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s part of history. I think the biggest thing is to go out of your comfort zone and drive something that you don’t feel ready to handle, ready to control, and that adrenaline is magic.”
I can’t help but agree. Drivers face punishing schedules, but should be allowed to race in more categories if they wish. After all, it’s their ability as a driver that makes them so attractive to teams and fans in the first place, and Alonso and McLaren showed what is possible in terms of increasing brand awareness and a fan base by branching out.
What’s exciting is that it’s the best drivers who have the required pull to get themselves in another car, and it’s the best drivers who we want to see testing themselves in new categories.
It’s all fun and games for now, but Alonso has opened the door to crossing over, and it’s clear others are taking such a suggestion much more seriously than in the past.