IndyCar isn’t the answer McLaren’s looking for

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    After decades of specialisation and professionalisation pushed the various forms of motorsport only further apart, the world of racing suddenly appears closer than ever before, in part thanks to Fernando Alonso.

    Alonso is perhaps his generation’s best racing talent, but the Spaniard has become so fed up with his uncompetitive F1 lot at McLaren – for three years thanks to unreliable Honda power, now thanks to a poor chassis – that he has been forced into the arms of various racing surrogates to fill the winning void.

    There are few categories Alonso won’t flirt with, demonstrated by his highest-profile extra-F1 dalliance coming in May 2017 when he sensationally ditched the Monaco Grand Prix for a seat at IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500.

    He almost won it too, before – you just couldn’t write it – his Honda engine blew just 21 laps from the finish.

    The 24 Hours of Daytona followed in February this year, which ended in brake failure 22 hours into the race. In reality the American endurance event was a warm-up for the biggest road race of them all: the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend.

    In 2018 Alonso is embarking on an ambitious two-series calendar and racing full seasons in Formula One with McLaren and in the World Endurance Championship with Toyota.

    At the moment he’s one race into a four-race string of events including this weekend’s 24-hour race, and he’s in the thick of eight races in 10 weekends.

    It’s part of Alonso’s stated aim of winning the so-called ‘triple crown’ of motorsport – victory at the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and at Le Mans – and it’s a boon for motorsport fans, who will see one of motor racing’s foremost talents ply his trade on a number of different arenas.

    For McLaren, however, it presents a problem.

    Fernando Alonso of McLaren-Honda at a Formula One press conference.

    (GEPA pictures/Christian Walgram)

    Alonso’s journey to becoming a multi-discipline driver began last year, in the third season of woe for McLaren-Honda, with his most overt snub of team and sport so far: missing Formula One’s blue riband Monaco Grand Prix.

    It was perhaps fair enough then given the season had been effectively written off anyway and given he was destined to be free of the troublesome chassis-engine pairing by either leaving or by the technical divorce that ultimately took place.

    In 2018, however, Alonso’s strengthening talk of a life outside F1 is an effective vote of no confidence in the ailing team.

    After the Canadian Grand Prix, where the Renault-powered Red Bull Racing lapped the Renault works team and where the Renault works team lapped Stoffel Vandoorne, the only finishing McLaren after Alonso retired with exhaust problems, it’s easy to understand why.

    McLaren, despite protestations over the last three seasons, is at the low ebb, the starting point of a rebuild. Technical and managerial reshuffles and restructures are in full swing, but recovery to podium contention, which was the team’s goal for this season, will not be swift.

    Alonso will be 37 years old and out of contract at the end of the year, and with no frontrunning team willing to accommodate him, his decision to seek pastures new in search of a win is effectively made for him.

    Conveniently enough, McLaren is also suddenly looking to broaden its horizons.

    McLaren CEO Zak Brown, fresh from visiting the IndyCar paddock in Detroit the weekend before the Canadian Grand Prix, told reporters in Montreal that he’s “seriously considering” entering his team into the American series next season.

    “We’re not done yet with our due diligence, but it’s looking favourable,” he said.

    And his position on Alonso’s future with the team?

    “He loves F1, loves WEC, did Daytona – so hopefully we’ll keep Fernando in the McLaren environment in some way, shape or form.”

    Perhaps McLaren would’ve sought to grow its racing portfolio without Alonso, but the haste with which it’s making its next move seems aimed more at holding onto its driver than it does at making a sensible strategic decision.

    IndyCar may not be the international and financially loose undertaking Formula One has become, but establishing a successful team, especially from the wrong side of the Atlantic, will be no small undertaking.

    At a time when McLaren’s core business – competing in Formula One – is in perhaps the direst state it’s been in the team’s history, spreading Woking’s finite resources only thinner risks leaving neither project adequately attended and tarnishing further the lustre of the historic brand.

    Surely focus and discipline are what’s required to restore McLaren to its winning ways, not diversions to distract from its struggles nor the pursuit of a talented but mercurial driver hurtling towards the twilight of his career.

    Is holding onto Fernando Alonso worth risking putting off or scuppering altogether McLaren’s return to the front in Formula One?

    One would’ve thought 52 years of F1 history would make the team greater than any one man, but we’ll presumably get our answer soon enough.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • June 14th 2018 @ 2:57pm
      woodart said | June 14th 2018 @ 2:57pm | ! Report

      you obviously havent checked out mclarens history. they have been there,done that in the past. no reason not to do in the future.as ,you say, there f1 side of the business isnt doing well, maybe time to look at other avenues. williams maybe need (or will have to) think about other series, cant see them ever getting back to the top. the distance between the haves, and have-nots is getting bigger and bigger.

      • Columnist

        June 14th 2018 @ 4:27pm
        Michael Lamonato said | June 14th 2018 @ 4:27pm | ! Report

        I’m well aware McLaren has a far wider history than Formula One, but (a) there’s no way the company would be as valuable if it didn’t compete in Formula One, the most significant motor racing category in the world, and (b) I wouldn’t have thought it in the nature of a business based on competition to give up just because it’s doing poorly.

        That of course doesn’t mean that McLaren can’t in the future do things other than Formula One, like IndyCar or the World Endurance Championship, which Zak Brown has also talked about returning to, but with cost control in F1 far from a done deal and with a rapid return to competitiveness guaranteed to demand an injection of cash, justifying expanding the racing portfolio now just doesn’t make any sense.

    • June 14th 2018 @ 6:00pm
      woodart said | June 14th 2018 @ 6:00pm | ! Report

      its a business based on uneven return, thats the big problem with teams that arent engine manufacturers. other series can be bigger money spinners. get over the f1 worshipping, if mclaren arent producing a decent return in f1, they would be deficient in business acumen in not looking further afeild. f electric could very well be in their sights.

      • Columnist

        June 18th 2018 @ 10:55am
        Michael Lamonato said | June 18th 2018 @ 10:55am | ! Report

        There is no motorsport series in the world that offers the same publicity Formula One does. IndyCar has a fraction of the viewers F1 commands, and even in the United States it lags behind Nascar.

        Moreover, a team like McLaren isn’t entering a series just because there’s a monetary return; teams race in F1 because it’s prestigious and therefore deemed worth the financial risk. Sure, open-wheel racing and the Indy 500 have great history in global motorsport terms, but the Formula One world championship remains a higher prize.

        • June 19th 2018 @ 12:52pm
          woodart said | June 19th 2018 @ 12:52pm | ! Report

          racing in f1 is not a higher prize if competing in it is sending you broke. something that many smarter people than us have learnt over the years. glamour and the words f1, DONT pay the bills. check out the teams, and individuals that have walked (or run) away from f1, but still remain involved with the sport and business of motor racing. if f1 was run fairly, then back markers like williams and mclaren could afford to help bulk up the feilds, but because its a case of the big getting bigger and the rest going broke, then I see no reason why some teams will look at other series. after all, plenty of auto manufacturers have left f1, but still remain in other forms of motorsport. they dont worship f1, they see it as just another way of promoting there products. if mclarens main money earner now are road going sports cars, it makes better business sense to go sports car racing, not single seater racing.

    • June 14th 2018 @ 7:21pm
      Simoc said | June 14th 2018 @ 7:21pm | ! Report

      It’ll look bad finishing in the rear half of an Indy car field in a McLaren . But they have been on the nose for awhile. So much for their superior chassis with a Honda motor. How stupid McLaren look and are. They’ve been kidding themselves for years.

      Alonso can hardly not win Le Mans given the farcical rules and a carry on of Toyotas instructions from the previous race. They have no real competition so have to break down not to win. Alonso would give Toyota great worldwide coverage if he wins.

      Maybe Alonso could do a farewell season in a Renault but most likely not. This is his farewell season in a dog car.

      • Columnist

        June 18th 2018 @ 10:47am
        Michael Lamonato said | June 18th 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        If McLaren follows through with its IndyCar plan, I think the long-term scheme would be to bring Alonso back if the car is back up to speed by 2021. But will McLaren really be back in victory contention by then? It’s hard to say for certain at this point that the team has figured out what it’s been doing wrong, and therefore any predictions for recovery are similarly hard to accept.

    • Roar Rookie

      June 15th 2018 @ 4:48am
      Chancho said | June 15th 2018 @ 4:48am | ! Report

      Overall, yeah, I think that McLaren have enough on their plate to keep them occupied without delving into other formula. Nevertheless, they are in the motorsport business, so if there’s a viable opportunity they’d be fools to give it up.

      Just stepping away from McLaren specifically and looking at it from a broader perspective, I’m actually a fan of these motorsport companies where racing is their business; think Haas, Penske, Ganasi, Prodrive et al for the simple reason that it IS their business. Car companies are becoming increasingly corporate and see motorsport more and more as extraneous to the business of selling cars and will cut it if it impacts their bottom line… look at VW and pulling out of WRC and then Audi from WEC, or the mess that BMW Toyota and Honda created when they left F1. Furthermore, with the car industry having to concentrate, you have fewer marques that could look at competing… again look at VW in WEC they have/had Porsche, Bentley and Audi, all with great heritage in the sport but because of the parent we fans don’t get to enjoy that, and the same goes for F1 and Fiat (how I would love to see a Maserati and a real Alfa Romeo competing in F1).

      • Columnist

        June 18th 2018 @ 10:43am
        Michael Lamonato said | June 18th 2018 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        Yep, absolutely agree. The independent motorsport companies have long been and always will be at the core of motorsport, and the bigger role they can play, even across multiple disciplines, the better it is for motorsport as a whole.

    • Roar Pro

      June 17th 2018 @ 2:04pm
      anon said | June 17th 2018 @ 2:04pm | ! Report

      I think McLaren realise they face the fate of Williams.

      They’re trying to turn themselves into a motorsports team/company since they are no longer relevant as an F1 team.

      I’m watching Le Mans now. Funny if Alonso doesn’t win in a two car field.

      Couldn’t happen to a better guy. The guy is poison wherever he has gone.

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