Monday, April 17, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Yeah, I Wrote About Fernando

Sebastian Vettel retook sole possession of the World Drivers' Championship lead with a victory in Bahrain. Lewis Hamilton balked Daniel Ricciardo entering the pit lane and earned a five-second penalty but still finished second. Meanwhile, at Silverstone, Porsche got outpaced. Zak Brown's week got better. Christian Horner is stuck in a bubble. I had way too much Easter candy. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Yeah, I Wrote About Fernando
I didn't plan to write more about Fernando Alonso and his Indianapolis 500 adventure but it is hard not to. There is a lot to unwrap from what is possibly the most shocking motorsports story in the 21st century. That is a bit of hyperbole but what else has been this surprising across multiple disciplines of motorsports?

Juan Pablo Montoya leaving McLaren to drive for Ganassi in NASCAR is up there. One week, Montoya's race is over on lap one of the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the next he is sitting in the media center at Chicagoland Speedway announcing he is going to be a Cup driver in 2007. Nobody saw that coming. It was a surprise that Sunday morning he made the announcement and it wasn't a pretty divorce between Montoya and McLaren. Maybe IndyCar reunification is up there as well. It came out of nowhere and all of a sudden, less than a month before the season was to start that 12-year squabble was over and teams were transitioning from Panoz DP01's with turbocharged V8 Cosworth engines to Dallara IR07s with naturally-aspirated V8 Honda engines.

Let's start with the man himself and what this means. Alonso has expressed his desire to do Indianapolis and Le Mans for a few years. I don't know if this was his dream growing up in Asturias or if it is something he realized he could do five or ten years ago because he knows the opportunity he has. Only one man has won Indianapolis, Le Mans and Monaco. That is rare air and you can collect grand prix victory after grand prix victory and world title after world title but becoming the second driver ever to accomplish such a feat as the motorsports Triple Crown, something only Graham Hill has accomplished, is just as noticeable if not more.

Alonso has been saying all the right things about his Indianapolis attempt. He says he has been watching past races, watching pit stops to see how they work and is going to be at Barber this weekend to meet with the team. I wouldn't be surprised if he heads to Indianapolis some time this week or after Barber to do a seat fitting and actually see and walk (or maybe like Montoya, take a tour bus) around the race track.

As for how Alonso will do? Who knows and one performance will not define who he is as a driver and it won't mean IndyCar drivers are just as good as Formula One drivers either. He could go out there and be 26th in qualifying and finish 15th in the race either the last car on the lead lap or first car one-lap down. That doesn't diminish his talent. He could be running 14th all month and be running in the top ten in the race only to have an engine go sour or an electrical problem end his race around halfway. I feel like many want to make this attempt as some type of statement either about IndyCar's talent or Formula One's talent but it isn't.

While I am happy Alonso is doing this, I want to see more. There is no Formula One race the week after Indianapolis. The Canadian Grand Prix is two weeks after Indianapolis. IndyCar does race the week after Indianapolis. IndyCar is at Belle Isle the week after Indianapolis. I am actually more interested in seeing how Alonso would do at Belle Isle or another road/street course than Indianapolis. I want to hear his comparison of the downforce levels between a Formula One car and an IndyCar. I want to see if he goes out there and wins the pole position by a half-second or is just another driver in the mire.

Plus, I think Alonso should run Belle Isle because what if he wins Indianapolis? One, I think it would be a great boost to Belle Isle to just have Fernando Alonso there but imagine if he won Indianapolis, how many more people would be interested in buying a ticket or tuning in to see him race again the following week? It could be a big ratings bump. If he doesn't win at Indianapolis, he should still be there, one because it would benefit Belle Isle and two he isn't doing anything that weekend anyway and it is right on the Canadian border.

However, Alonso might be too busy to do Belle Isle because Zak Brown's other race team, United Autosport, has an open seat in its LMP2 car at Le Mans and that car just won at Silverstone in the European Le Mans Series season opener. Le Mans test day is the same weekend as Belle Isle. Alonso is a platinum driver and is exempt from the test day but I still think he would want to be there and would need the experience seeing as how he has no experience with the car. So the dream of him doing Belle Isle is dashed but possibly for something a bit greater.

During the past week I was curious if Alonso had ever done a race as long as 500 miles and the answer is unsurprisingly no but at the same time I am shock at how consistent his schedule has been for nearly two decades. Alonso has been in Formula One since 2001 and he didn't race in 2002 because he was a Renault test driver but before that he won the Euro Open by Nissan title and finished fourth in International Formula 3000. That is it. He didn't do any sports cars. He didn't do an odd one-off at an endurance race. He has been doing nothing but 307 km (190-mile) races for nearly two decades. However, that lack of long-distance race experience is nothing new. There was a time when all the drivers heading to Indianapolis had done nothing but 100-mile dirt races. Maybe there was the odd 200-miler or in the era of board track racing when you had more 250-mile or 300-mile races but nothing came close to Indianapolis.

I guess to wrap this up, let's talk about the Formula One paddock's reaction to this. Red Bull's Christian Horner insulted Zak Brown calling McLaren's decision "mad" and calling the Indianapolis 500 "nutty." Multiple drivers said they would never skip a Formula One race for another race. Bernie Ecclestone even said he would have made sure he would have never let it happen. I am going to break this down piece-by-piece.

First, I get this is an odd situation and nine times out of ten it makes no sense to race somewhere else if you are a Formula One driver but this isn't just another race. Alonso isn't skipping Monaco to run a GT4 race in Algarve. This is a crown jewel event. Horner has been stuck in the Formula One bubble for so long that he can't possibly imagine something else worth experiencing, which is disappointing because while an IndyCar race might not have the glitz and glamour and world attention of a Formula One race, it is just as exciting and the same could be said for multiple series and races around the world. How has Horner not seen any of the positive attention from all this? When has both sides of the Atlantic had this much buzz about anything motorsports-related? He may think it is mad but it is genius.

Second, drivers saying they would never skip a race makes sense but that is the environment of Formula One. You can't openly flaunt your desire to race elsewhere. Why? Because you will be on the curb. If an active Formula One driver said he or she (but right now just he) wanted to race IndyCar then the teams won't waist their time with that driver. The teams see it as if he or she wants to do IndyCar than go to IndyCar and the same can be said if the series is the World Endurance Championship, Super GT, Supercars, NASCAR or whatever it might be. It is sad because drivers lose out and fans lose out as well. We end up with two-dozen likeminded individuals whose passions are suppressed by the teams.

Third, I am not sure Bernie would have been able to twist the arms of Alonso and McLaren. He said he would have reminded Alonso he has a Formula One contract and that he should honor this contract but his Formula One employer wants to take him to Indianapolis. What could Bernie really do? Ban McLaren? For what? They have a right to change drivers if they want to. Suspend Alonso? For what? His contract is with the team, not the series. I think this would have been a case where Ecclestone would have been completely powerless, just like when Nigel Mansell joined Newman-Haas Racing.

There will be plenty to write about over the next six weeks but as Alonso watches the past races and tries to figure out how to properly handle a pit stop, do you think he is imagining what it will be like in the lead up? The practice and qualifying days, the events around town, Carb Day, maybe the Carb Night Burger Bash, the parade. As much as Alonso is doing this for the race, is he imagining what it will be like to walkout at driver introductions with over around 300,000 people looking at him? Will he be prepared from that after years of being in the more secular world of Formula One? Then again, he wasn't able to go back home after he won his world championships.

The shock that gets Alonso might not be the race but the culture around it.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Sebastian Vettel but did you know...

The #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima won the 6 Hours of Silverstone. The #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Gibson of Oliver Jarvis, Ho-Pin Tung and Thomas Laurent won in LMP2. The #67 Ford GT of Harry Tincknell, Andy Priaulx and Pipo Derani won in GTE-Pro. The #61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari of Matt Griffin, Weng Sun Mok and Keita Sawa won in GTE-Am.

The #32 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan of Felipe Albuquerque, Hugo de Sadeleer and Will Owen won the 4 Hours of Silverstone. The #2 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan of Sean Rayhall and John Falb won in LMP3. The #90 TF Sport Aston Martin of Nikki Thiim, Euan Hankey and Salih Yoluc won in GTE.

Artem Markelov and Charles Leclerc split the Formula Two races from Bahrain.

Roberto Colciago and Dušan Borković split the TCR International Series races from Bahrain.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar heads to Barber Motorsports Park.
Indy Lights and U.S. F2000 will be back in action at Barber.
MotoGP makes its lone stop to the United States in the Lone Star State at Circuit of the Americas.
NASCAR will be at Bristol.
The Super Formula season opens at Suzuka.
Supercars will be at Phillip Island.
The Blancpain Endurance Series starts its season at Monza.
Supercross will be in Salt Lake City.