TWO-TIME Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso will be racing in the Indianapolis 500 this year instead of the Monaco Grand Prix. Yup, he will be out of his F1 seat and into an Indycar seat. The Indy 500 is the premier race in North America and it is on an oval track that only has left turns and almost no braking. These cars run at an average speed (yes, average speed) of more than 300 kilometers per hour for 200 laps on a 2.5-mile racetrack. To an average Joe, F1 and Indycars would look very similar, but the skill set needed to drive those cars are completely different. This will be a mountain for Fernando Alonso to climb.
Prior to 1996, Indycar was thriving and it was where retired F1 drivers would go. We have seen F1 greats such as Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansel succeed in Indycar. Indycar also produced great F1 drivers such as Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya.
1996 was the beginning of the dark days of open wheel racing in America as Indycar “politics” caused irreconcilable differences between some team owners and the series that there was a split where America had two major open-wheel series: Champcar, composed of the disgruntled teams, and Indycar, which was still run by the Indycar organization. This split ruined open-wheel racing in America. Fans all over the world just lost interest. The Indy 500 at that time also lost its prestige. Racers from Europe were not that interested in it.
In 2008, both Champcar and Indycar reunified and became one series again. After more than 10 years of bickering, they finally realized that the only way for American open-wheel racing to survive is if they became one series again. During this time, NASCAR had become the premier motorsport in America. Indycar had its work cut out to become popular again.
From 2008 to today, Indycar’s popularity has been gaining ground. In fact, I have been following the last three seasons, and it has been a very competitive and very exciting series. Sadly, mainstream sports TV here in Asia has not been airing these races that I have to watch it online. In the last three seasons, Indycar racing has been more exciting that Formula 1, in my opinion.
The last two Indy 500 races were won by former Formula 1 drivers. In 2015 it was Juan Pablo Montoya, and in 2016 it was Alexander Rossi (he had a brief F1 career). When Alexander Rossi won it last year, it was also his first Indy 500. This is a good sign for Alonso with respect to his chances of winning this race.
One of Alonso’s motivations in joining this race is that he wants a shot at the Triple Crown, which is winning the Monaco Grand Prix (which he did already), Lemans, and the Indy 500. However, the drivers closest to achieving the Triple Crown are Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve, as they have won Monaco and the Indy 500 already, so all they needs is a Le Mans win. The only driver who has achieved the Triple Crown is Graham Hill.
Alonso, being one of the most popular drivers in F1 is just the boost Indycar needs to get the Indy 500 really back on the map. His participation will bring a new global audience to American open-wheel racing. I will be rooting for him this year.