Critics: Alonso ‘Barking Mad’ To Race At Indy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 15 2017

Many in Formula One can’t believe that former champion Fernando Alonso wants to drive in this year’s Indianapolis 500 instead of the Grand Prix of Monaco. (INDYCAR/LAT USA file photo)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner says Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso of arch-rival McLaren F1 is “barking mad” for his decision to compete in next month’s Indianapolis 500.

Alonso, a two-time F1 World Driving Champion, announced Wednesday he will drive in the 101st running of the Indy 500 on May 28 in a McLaren-entered/Honda-powered car fielded by Andretti Autosport. Alonso will skip the Monaco Grand Prix _ crown jewel event of the FIA Formula One World Championship _ to compete on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee race.   

Eric Boullier, McLaren’s racing director, and Zak Brown, McLaren Technology Group executive director, both signed-off on Alonso’s decision and the subsequent hiring of Jenson Button _Fernando’s former McLaren teammate _ to serve as a one-off replacement at the Principality.

“(Button) was the obvious first choice but we had to make sure he was up for it, since he’s now relocated to the States. He was very up for it as soon as we contacted him,” Brown said during Friday’s team representative news conference leading into Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. “I think it’s great for our team to

Is Fernando Alonso barking mad?

replace one world champion with another for Monaco. Jenson has won a round there, loves the circuit and didn’t take any convincing whatsoever when we contacted him. So good for us and good for the sport.”

While that generally has been the view expressed by any number of drivers and executives in both open-wheel series, Horner begged to differ.

“It’s a difficult one for Fernando, he’s having a tough time,” said Horner, sharing a dais with Brown and Claire Williams of Williams F1. “Zak’s got the problem that he got a depressed driver on his hands; he’s trying to keep him motivated. He’s come up with this idea _ send him to Indianapolis. Must be barking mad, it’s the nuttiest race I’ve ever seen. No testing. He’s just going to jump in the car. Turn 1 is a proper turn as well. It’s not just easy flat all the way round. I think he needs to see a psychiatrist personally.

“Would we let our drivers do it? No! I believe if a driver commits to a team…it’s a bit like disappearing with another girlfriend halfway through the year and then coming back, it doesn’t seem the right thing to be doing. Perhaps if the races didn’t clash or do it at the end of his Formula One career…but obviously McLaren have got this approach which is different to ours, but good for them.”

Red Bull’s drivers are Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Max Verstappen of The Netherlands.

Asked for his reaction to Horner’s harsh comments, Brown said, “Fernando’s not scared. No, he’s going to get some testing in. He is studying Indianapolis. It’s obviously going to be a challenge but he wants a challenge. A rookie driver (American Alexander Rossi) won it last year. Not that we’re going to set any expectations. He’ll have a car capable of running at the front. He’ll be extremely prepared and I think he’s going to put on a good show. He’s very smart and that’s what you need to be around Indianapolis. So yeah, I think it’s going to be good. Everybody is going to be watching.”

In defense of Horner’s argument, Alonso never has driven an Indy car, a Dallara-based chassis powered by a 2.2-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged Honda V6. More importantly, the 35-year-old Spaniard never has competed on an oval track surrounded by concrete walls ringed by SAFER Barriers. Drivers in the IndyCar Series routinely lap around the 2.5-mile IMS oval in excess of 225 mph for 200 laps, with upwards of seven pit stops during “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Brown described Button, the 2009 F1 world champion with Brawn GP, as the “obvious first choice” of McLaren’s hierarchy. Button, 37, drove for McLaren from 2010 to 2016 and has a home in the Principality.

Monaco will be Button’s 306th grand prix start, and first since stepping aside at the end of 2016 as McLaren opted to partner Alonso with Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium.

“I’m thrilled to be making a one-off return to Formula 1 racing, and I couldn’t think of a better place to make that return than my adopted home grand prix _ Monaco,” Button said. “I’ve won the race before, in 2009, and it’s one of my all-time favorite racetracks.

“It’s a tricky street circuit on which a good driver can really make a difference and, although the McLaren/Honda MCL32 hasn’t begun the season well, I think it may be more suited to Monaco than to the faster circuits that Fernando and Stoffel have raced it on so far this season.

“I realize we won’t have a realistic chance of repeating my 2009 victory, but I think we’ll have an opportunity to score world championship points, which will be very valuable to the team in terms of constructors’ rankings.

“I’ll drive the MCL32 around Monaco in the McLaren sim beforehand, and I reckon I’ll be ready for the race after doing that. I’m supremely fit, having done a lot of triathlon training recently, so I have no worries on that score.”

Boullier said those factors made Button, of Great Britain, a logical choice to replace Alonso. “I was truly delighted when Jenson accepted our suggestion that he race at Monaco instead of Fernando,” Boullier said. “Jenson is a class act. He’s a superb driver _ fast, smooth and precise _ and he won’t have lost any of his competitive edge over the past few months. After all, he’s missed only a handful of grands prix since his last outing in Abu Dhabi in late November last year, and he’s as fit as a fiddle. Also, he’s always been good at Monaco. He’ll do a great job for us, I’m sure of that.”

Button will not get a chance to drive the MCL32 before Monaco, however, with Vandoorne and Oliver Turvey confirmed to be driving in next week’s test in Bahrain.

Brown said the Alonso-to-Indy deal started as a “flirtation” that quickly morphed into reality. “Take a step back,” Brown said.” My boss, or bosses, are the executive committee, which is run by Sheikh Mohamed and Mansour Ojjeh, and they are a real driving force and motivational individuals who are really pushing us to do new and exciting things. And so, ultimately on that direction Jonathan Neale and I work very closely together.

“And when this opportunity came along it really started off with me and Fernando kind of joking around about it. I was actually kind of serious, but I wasn’t sure if he would be. He kind of flirted back…that was pre-Australia (the 2017 season-opener last month). We then had a breakfast with Honda and he told them of his desire to race at Indianapolis and ultimate try to win the Triple Crown (Monaco, Indy and the 24 Hours of Le Mans). At that point I could tell he was serious about it, but didn’t think 2017 was the timeline we were talking about. Then we spoke after Australia and he asked for a dinner Friday in China and I said, ’Hey, about that Indy thing?’ and he said, ‘That’s exactly why I want to do dinner and discuss.’

“At that point I knew it was serious, so I got on the phone to the chief exec of INDYCAR (Mark Miles) to see if it was possible. And through a lot of skunkwork, because I really didn’t want any rumors getting out there, in case it wouldn’t happen, which I thought would be the case, and we were able to put it together. We went to the executive committee and checked in with Eric to see what he thought of the idea. The executive committee blessed it and Saturday morning Fernando said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and then we ran pretty hard for 72 hours to make it happen.”

McLaren has a solid history in the Indianapolis 500. Company founder Bruce McLaren fielded a car in the 1970 race, although he failed to qualify it. The next year, after McLaren was killed while testing a Can-Am car, Mark Donohue qualified a Penske-entered McLaren in the second position but completed only 66 laps and finished 25th. In 1972, Donohue won the 500, the first of a record 16 for Team Penske and the first of three McLaren victories at IMS. Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth, Texas, won the other two, in 1974 and ’76.

“Yeah, we have a lot of history,” Brown said. “We’ve won Indianapolis three times, we won Le Mans, we won Can-Am. We’re now doing batteries for Formula E in the future. I think the McLaren brand is raced all over the world in all sorts of different formulas and as the executive committee said, if we can go win, if it’s commercially viable and it fits the McLaren brand, we’re all a bunch of racers, so let’s go racing. I think that is what we will see McLaren continue to do.”

Brown said Alonso’s Indy adventure will generate positive buzz for F1 well beyond the Month of May.

“Anytime you have a two-time world champion and McLaren racing all the fans are going to want to see how the Formula One team and the Formula One driver does,” Brown said. “I think that’s definitely going to raise a lot of awareness for Formula One, because that’s the headline: Formula One driver, Formula One team. On the flipside, obviously great for Indianapolis. I think the last time there was that much noise was when Nigel Mansell (of Great Britain) came over to Indianapolis when he had won the world championship (in 1993) with you (Claire Williams).

“It’s great, it’s a lot of intrigue and it’s a real racer thing to do that used to happen all the time with the Jackie Stewarts and the Mario Andrettis. That’s all the feedback we’ve had , ‘It’s great to see it’ and hopefully we’ll be competitive.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 15 2017
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