Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso announced Wednesday that he will race for McLaren at the Indianapolis 500 next month in a surprise switch that means the Spanish driver miss the Monaco Grand Prix on the same day.
It will be Alonso’s first time in the showcase race as he steps up his bid to win the so-called “Triple Crown” of motor sport: the Monaco GP, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
“As a driver, if you want to be considered the best, you need to be able to drive all kind of cars in all different series,” said the 35-year-old Alonso, who has twice won in Monaco and hasn’t competed at Le Mans. “After successful F1 championships, the opportunity to race in the Indy 500, the opportunity to race in Le Mans, that dream of the Triple Crown is something very attractive.”
McLaren said the Monaco GP will be the only Formula One race that Alonso will miss. The British-based team hasn’t announced who will replace Alonso for the most glitzy race on the F1 calendar, held a few hours before the Indy 500 on May 28 this year.
Alonso, who has 32 grand prix victories, didn’t earn a point in the first two races of the 2017 season – in Australia and China – and McLaren is struggling to be competitive once again.
“To be honest, if we are fighting for the world championship, we can’t afford to lose 25 points of possibilities. But we are not in that position, unfortunately,” Alonso told reporters on a conference call. “This possibility is a win-win situation for McLaren as a team.”
McLaren will be racing in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 38 years. Its entry will be a Dallara DW12 chassis, run by the Andretti Autosport team headed by Michael Andretti – a former IndyCar champion who raced in Formula One for McLaren in 1993.
Alonso will fly to Indianapolis immediately after the Spanish Grand Prix on May 14 to get in two weeks of IndyCar practice.
“I’ve never raced an IndyCar car before, and neither have I ever driven on a super-speedway, but I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast,” said Alonso, who plans to attend the April 23 IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. “I’ve watched a lot of IndyCar action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220 mph (354 kph). I realize I’ll be on a steep learning curve.”
Andretti will have six cars in the Indianapolis 500, including Alexander Rossi, the former F1 test driver who was the surprise winner of last year’s 100th running of the classic.
For Alonso to drive in the Indy 500, Stefan Wilson had to give up his expected ride with Andretti.
“It was really difficult obviously because the Indy 500, I live and breathe for it. I’ve spent 12 months trying to get to this point, so definitely hard from that standpoint,” Wilson said. “But when it really comes down to it, I wanted to put the interest of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series first.”
Wilson is expected to get the opportunity to drive in the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
The Andretti team has shown much improvement from last year, when Honda was dominated all season by Chevrolet. Honda drivers have won the first two races of the season, and the Andretti cars have been competitive.
There had been rumblings in the paddock over the weekend in Long Beach that IndyCar officials were trying to bring in a “showstopper” for this year’s 500. Alonso makes sense now that McLaren is run by Zak Brown, who ran an Indianapolis-based marketing firm for years before his gradual move into Formula One. He has often been consulted by IndyCar management and was even in talks for an official role with the series.
“Could Fernando win this year’s Indy 500?” Brown said. “Well, I wouldn’t be so silly as to make any such rash prediction, but I expect him to be in the mix.”
Three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who was doing IndyCar testing in Texas, said it’s great to have Alonso coming to Indianapolis. He said it shows how special that race is for someone of Alonso’s caliber to miss Monaco to be there. Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner, believes Alonso has a realistic chance to compete for a win.
“You get enough miles around Indianapolis to sort of get a good basis on it,” Dixon said. “He’s with a team that’s a proven winner, and teammates that are definitely proven winners, too. He’s walking into a good combination. Honda is a very strong package right now. So the stars are somewhat aligning for a great run for Fernando.”
In 1966, F1 champion Graham Hill won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie on his way to completing the Triple Crown – the only driver to have done so. The most celebrated F1 driver to take part in the race in recent years was Nigel Mansell, the then-defending champion, in 1993. Mansell finished third.
Alonso, who is competing in his 15th season in F1 and was champion in 2005 and ‘06, said he hasn’t set any targets for the Indy 500.
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer and AP Sports Writers Michael Marot and Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.
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