When the news first broke it was initially a mix of excitement, shock and disbelief.
Fernando ‘professional sadness man’ Alonso is missing the Monaco Grand Prix, one of the races that McLaren’s quest for a point, any points, may finally be completed at, in favor of racing the Indianapolis 500. It’s an attempt to get the next part of the prestigious Triple Crown, leaving him with only the Twenty Four Hours of Le Mans remaining (a race he almost got to do previously). The Indy 500 car may be McLaren-branded, but five-time race winner (including last year) Andretti Autosport will be preparing the car. Stefan Wilson has kindly given up the Honda engine he had a claim on with a promise that both the series and Andretti Autosport will support him for next year.
You’ve got Michael Andretti leaving Ryan Hunter-Reay’s box to guide Alonso in his endeavour, while team technical director Eric Bretzman, who was involved in Scott Dixon’s 500 win in 2008 as well as three of his series championships, will go into the Spaniard’s box as race engineer. He’ll have four veterans, two of whom already have their grins etched onto the Borg-Warner trophy, to turn to for an advice on setup and racing lines. He’ll have five cars in total to read data from.
This past weekend, Alonso was at Barber Motorsport Park for a press conference and a first meeting with the team before going for a seat fitting on Monday. He will do sim work in prep, a full day of testing at the Speedway on the third of May with Marco Andretti helping him to set up the car, and, as soon as he’s finished at the Spanish Grand Prix, he’ll be whisked back over to Indianapolis for the first day of practice for the 500.
This may have started as a joke between Alonso and Zak Brown at the start of the year but it’s being taken incredibly serious by everyone involved.
It’s big for Alonso because of the triple crown implications but it’s also big for the Indy 500, showing that it’s still a prestigious race that top-level drivers have on their bucket list. Aside from simply bringing new international attention, McLaren is already talking about possibly joining the IndyCar series outright, and, believe it or not, Formula One with the Circuit of the Americas talking about an increase of interest in the American Grand Prix.
As soon as the dust settled on the day of Alonso’s announcement, the naysaying began.
First it was from the Formula One camp.
People went to Bernie Ecclestone for a quote, as if they were expecting anything but how he would have done everything in his power to prevent it, as if he hadn’t previously moved the Baku Grand Prix simply so it would clash with Le Mans after Nico Hulkenberg won it. Christian Horner called Fernando mad, even if he claimed to respect his decision. Pretty much every driver asked said they wouldn’t do it (or any other Motorsport event) if it clashed with an Formula One race though none of them apparently said anything to Alonso personally. Lots of voices saying how it was a disgrace that Alonso was being allowed to skip Monaco, the crown jewel of the Formula One calendar as well as a general rumble that IndyCar would be wanting Alonso to fail (which explains why the team’s boss and technical director are on his pit box).
Then we get to members of the British press and coverage.
In my twelve years as a British based IndyCar fan, I’ve come to accept that there’s been two way to see anything on the series:
1: Coverage of celebrities at the track (Ashley Judd would pretty much have more column inches than her ex-husband Dario Franchitti while, in 2011, one paper gave more attention to Justin Timberlake because he co-owned the fashion company that sponsored Dan Wheldon’s 500 winning car.)
2: Coverage of crashes and fatalities. What ends up happening here is that it’s not about the driver, about who they are or were, what they achieved (unless it’s telling you why you should have heard of them and be sad, ignoring their own part in the public ignorance). They’re just a statistic now, useful to be paraded out when someone needs to bring up how dangerous IndyCar is.
Needless to say, coverage has focused almost solely on the question of if Alonso and the McLaren team have fully taken the risks into consideration. As if they hadn’t spent the first races of the year questioning Pascal Wehrlein (or Alonso himself the previous year) for his commitment to F1, as apparently all you need to deal with a broken vertebrae while racing at speeds of up to 200mph and G-forces of up to 6G is just some painkillers. What’s the worst that can happen if you force a driver, that knows they’re not fit to be in the car, with senses dulled by medication?
That’s not dangerous, no, not at all.
Then there’s the dismissal of the race as ‘just turning left’. We had David Coulthard call it a shadow of its former self despite the Speedway being the biggest sporting venue in the world with a capacity of 400,000, a capacity that it managed to draw the entirety of last year. The biggest Formula One venue is the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico with 221,011.
We also had him confess to not knowing why they drink milk before adding how it wouldn’t appeal to Scots.
Because the Indy 500 totally wasn’t part of noted Scotsman Jim Clark’s 1965 year of dominance.
Because other noted Scotsman Dario Franchitti totally didn’t win it three times, tied with Helio Castroneves for most successful non-American at the track.
There was also the comment from Paul di Resta, Franchitti’s little cousin of all people, saying that “[Alonso] might get dizzy from constantly turning left.”
As the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend progressed the focus naturally drifted to that.
Over in IndyCar the mood was overall positive, one or two worried about what it would mean if Alonso won, but not much beside that.
Then Jenna Fryer of AP released a certain article.
An article that all you really could do after reading it was sit back and scratch your head, wondering if there’s an editor at all that the piece passed by before it was published.
First of all, her claim that Alonso is skipping the rookie orientation was completely unfounded. Alonso is doing the rookie orientation because nobody gets to do Indy without passing it. There’s even a refresher test for any drivers that’s been out of the car long term.
Secondly, the Honda engines in F1 and IndyCar are completely different.
F1 is a 1.6 litre single turbocharged V6. IndyCar: 2.2 litre twin turbocharged V6. The F1 Honda engine has been garbage, while the IndyCar engine won the 500 last year, and won the first two races of this season.
If she’d brought up the irony of the team he’s joining managing to have all four cars DNF at Long Beach due to engine failure, then she’d have a humorous point. Not a point with any merit, as street courses and ovals have no real comparison, but it’d be something.
Her teenage daughter was used a barometer for how ‘big’ a name Alonso ‘really’ is, apparently her “who?” being the ultimate proof as to why he’s a bad choice. Something tells me she’d be offended by what happened when I asked my teenage sister if she knew who Tony Stewart is (“no.”) and Danica Patrick (“isn’t she that driver that races in a bikini?”) and used that as evidence to why the two drivers she mentioned would be a bad choice.
Speaking of that, did anyone remember either Stewart or Patrick being mentioned as potentially taking part in the Indy 500? The only NASCAR driver I’d heard being interested was Kyle Larson with Chip Ganassi Racing, the team that he currently leads the Cup Series for, and that was quashed by Chip Ganassi himself, saying they’re looking at doing the double next year.
So yeah, a mess of an article full of misinformation and boy did it have consequences.
People on the Formula One side got fired up, offended at the implication that their series isn’t the biggest (and bestest) in the whole world and their driver may not be that good.
People on the IndyCar side were also fired up, annoyed at the misinformation that was in the article. Michael Andretti had to reassure people that Alonso was going to do rookie orientation while his father, Mario Andretti, said that Fryer should apologise to Alonso for what she wrote.
And Fryer? There’s been no corrections or accepting that she made any mistakes. A lot of fanning the flames (including implying she was at risk of being murdered like a journalist who had spoken out against Putin as well as using Billy Monger’s fund raiser to guilt and deflect) on Twitter. A lot of talk about how she will have something new posted on Monday although this seems to have been to moved to the back burner due to the rain delayed NASCAR race that day and Dale Earnhardt Jr’s retirement announcement.
I imagine, if it does finally get published, it will be on her insistence that she really does care about IndyCar, that’s why she dismissed the big deal of an international driver wanting to take part. It’s also why she didn’t bother doing any research or asking any of the sources I’m sure she has in the paddock; she surely knows far better than any of them.
All we can hope is that it calms down at least until Alonso’s first day on the track, when we find out how it went and the first impressions of how he actually feels in the car. That’s when the journalist and pundits can say something that really matters.