Changing tracks no more a sin

Changing tracks no more a sin

Formula One: Alonso's choice to drive at Indy 500 has hardly seen any opposition from authorities

Changing tracks no more a sin
The Formula One series was off last week, giving Fernando Alonso free time to travel to Alabama on an exploratory mission. He spent the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham getting to know his competitors and team-mates for the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso, a two-time F1 champion, figured to be an also-ran in next month’s Monaco Grand Prix. It was an ignominious prospect for one of Formula One’s most talented drivers, who is also a two-time winner at Monaco.

So it was not difficult for Zak Brown, the new chief executive of Alonso’s McLaren team, to suggest something highly unusual: Alonso should skip Monaco on May 28 and run the Indianapolis 500 on that day instead. Brown knew that Alonso harboured a not-so-secret desire to try his hand at Indy.

“I wanted to do it, but honestly I didn’t think it would be possible for me,” Alonso said in a telephone interview last Sunday from Alabama. “But when Zak suggested Indy instead, there was never a question that I wanted to do it.”

But the opportunity was only made possible by a recent, important shift in the dynamics of international motor sport.

“It only became possible this year,” Alonso said. “It is a unique situation. In F1 this year, I am working with an underperforming car. Winning at Monaco is not possible, but winning at Indianapolis certainly is. So why not try?”

Until this year, the titans who ruled Formula One the past 40-odd years would not have allowed it. They would have considered it a betrayal in a competitive turf war that has raged between Formula One and Indy cars for decades.

“I would have blocked it,” said Bernie Ecclestone, 86, the major-domo of Formula One until he was pushed out this year in a power struggle with the series’ new ownership.

Also out of the picture now is McLaren’s equally imperious chief executive, Ron Dennis, 69, who was replaced by Brown in the off-season.

“Ron wouldn’t have allowed it,” Ecclestone told reporters at the Bahrain Grand Prix on April 14, two days after Alonso’s Indy 500 venture was announced. “I think I could have persuaded him and McLaren not to go — and I would have.”

When Dennis took control of the team in the early 1980s, he pulled McLaren’s entries at the Indy 500, which the team had won three times in the 1970s.

But Brown, a 56-year-old American, enthusiastically fostered the deal that would allow Alonso to drive for Michael Andretti’s team using a McLaren-branded car in the 500.

“I think Zak is a man that has a bigger vision than other team principals or bosses that I’ve had,” Alonso said. “I think he also wants to run Indy for more years than just this one. In the future, I think Zak would like to see McLaren also expand to compete again in the 24-hour race at Le Mans, France.”

For Alonso, who has been despondent this season about McLaren’s lack of pace in Formula One, the Le Mans race also holds great interest. “My career objectives are very ambitious,” Alonso said. “I intend to win the Triple Crown of the greatest races: Monaco, Indy and Le Mans.”

Le Mans is a dream that Alonso, 35, sees as further down the road — perhaps after his F1 career is over. His focus is now on Indy.

“I know that to win is a lot to ask from a rookie,” he said. “If I don’t win, I will see how I feel afterward. To see if I enjoyed it, and if I was competitive. But if I want to win the Indy 500, and I feel I can, I’m sure I will want to come back and to keep trying to win.”

That the Monaco Grand Prix, inaugurated in 1929, and the Indy 500, which last year celebrated its 100th running, are now held on the same day is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“It’s only been since 1974 that the Indianapolis 500 has been scheduled to run on a Sunday like Monaco,” said Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s historian. “Prior to that, it was a fixture on Memorial Day, which was observed on various days, from Tuesdays to a Saturday.”

Indy’s unusual scheduling before 1974 often allowed a number of drivers, from Formula One to NASCAR, to participate.

“In 1967, for example,” Davidson said, “there were six drivers from Formula One in the 500 field.”

Cooperation, though, was far greater in earlier racing eras; in fact, in the 1950s, the Indy 500 was actually a points-paying event on the F1 calendar.

So although he would have tried to block Alonso’s dream to run the 500, Ecclestone still wished him well in the endeavor.

“I think it’s probably good for him,” Eccelstone said. “I hate to see him at the back of the grid. He is much too good a driver for that. He deserves a chance to win.”