McLaren Honda on Wednesday gave its star driver the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream when it handed Fernando Alonso a spot on the starting grid for the Indianapolis 500.
The shock announcement means the two-time Formula One champion will miss the Monaco Grand Prix, one of the marquee events on the sport’s calendar, but will give McLaren the chance to return to one of the world’s most iconic races for the first time in 38 years.
“I’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix twice, and it’s one of my ambitions to win the triple crown (the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours), which has been achieved by only one driver in the history of motorsport: Graham Hill,” Alonso said in a team statement.
Considered one of the top drivers on the F1 grid, Alonso will join up with the Honda-linked Andretti Autosport Indycar team which is run by American open-wheel racing legend and former McLaren F1 driver Michael Andretti.
Alonso will not be the first F1 driver to make the switch, but to do it midseason and with no experience in the American category is a big risk, both for Alonso and for McLaren Honda.
“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,” Alonso said. “It’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour).”
“It’s a tough challenge, but I’m up for it.”
Andretti, son of 1978 F1 champion Mario Andretti, said he has no concern about Alonso’s ability to adapt to oval-track racing, a completely different style to what the Spaniard is familiar with.
“Fernando’s lack of experience on super-speedways is not of concern to me. I do believe that the Indianapolis 500 is one of the best places for a rookie to start because there is the opportunity for so much practice . . . Fernando is a great talent and I have full confidence that he will represent very strongly,” team CEO Andretti said in the statement.
McLaren is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winning team, but both victories came in the mid-1970s.
Historical comparisons aside, the announcement gives the team and Honda a much-needed publicity boost after a terrible first two races of the 2017 F1 season saw speculation that the formerly high-flying team may pull the pin on its long-term association with Honda in favor of the much more competitive Mercedes engine.