Monday, May 20, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: What's Alonso's End Game?

Simon Pagenaud won pole position for the 103rd Indianapolis 500. Fernando Alonso, Patricio O'Ward and Max Chilton failed to qualify for the 103rd Indianapolis 500. There was rain, there was sunshine and there was wind and we all have to wonder what the future has in store. Elsewhere, NASCAR may have found the race format most suited for 1.5-mile ovals if not every race. It was a brotherly affair at Le Mans on two wheels. Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters visited Belgium for the first time in 14 years. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

What's Alonso's End Game?
Once it became clear a third World Drivers' Championship was no longer in reach for Fernando Alonso the Spaniard shifted his focus to leaving his mark on the motorsport's world in another way, in a way only one other man has accomplished.

Alonso set his eyes on the Triple Crown of Motorsports in 2017, despite having only spent his career in Formula One and with only the Monaco Grand Prix under his belt. He had been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but not to race around the oval. He had been to Circuit de la Sarthe but only to wave the Tricolour and start the race.

It became clear McLaren was not going to provide Alonso with grand prix victories. It was not going to resurrect his career. After an unharmonious first stint with team when Alonso was alone on top of the mountain, the only previous world champion on the grid in 2007 but someone who could not be challenged as a number one driver and was by Lewis Hamilton, this return was not going to achieve what was possible at the end of the 2000s. It was an opportunity missed and in the second stint with McLaren would not recreate what could have been.

Alonso had maxed out his accomplishments in Formula One but he wasn't done. Alonso wasn't going to equal or exceed the number of world championships for Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher but he saw there was more than Formula One and something else to chance.

Indianapolis and Le Mans may not have been what Alonso grew up dreaming of but a student of the sport saw the different avenues to greatness. While many drivers are remembered for their Formula One exploits, the motorsports world is expansive and there is more than the grand prix circuit. It has always been there and was once regularly visited from drivers all around the globe. The world changed, it became more insular, drivers sticking to series mostly because of tight-knit contracts focusing a driver on one avenue instead of spreading that driver to all corners of the globe.

In 2017, Alonso reached the cliff and made a leap of faith into the vast unknown. He decided to chase something only one other man has accomplished and when he embarked on his journey he was only a third of the way to completion, to matching the grand feat of Graham Hill.

At first, it was an audacious and noble challenge. It had been a while since a driver, an active Formula One driver and a past world champion sought Indianapolis 500 glory. There was no guarantee Alonso would succeed. There was no guarantee he would be competitive let alone contending for a victory and in his rookie year Alonso dazzled everyone. He had never raced on an oval, never raced in anything longer than the 305 km length of a grand prix, never ran at those kinds of speeds and he was a front runner. He was in the conversation for the victory, one of many drivers that afternoon. It appeared Alonso was up to the task and an Indianapolis 500 victory would not be unthinkable for the Spaniard.

Two years later, Alonso missed the Indianapolis 500 and with McLaren fully behind him.

Alonso and McLaren both would have had to know it would not go as swimmingly as it did with Andretti in 2017. It was going to be a learning process. Add to it building the car on its own, not having the dearth of Indianapolis experience and on top of it having a different aero package than what Alonso mastered two years ago and it was a greater uphill battle for this team's endeavor.

I doubt either party thought it would miss the race. It didn't have to repeat its 2017 performance. It just had to be adequate and the team couldn't manage that.

How long will this go for Alonso?

He has made it clear that he is chasing the Triple Crown but many drivers have gone after the Indianapolis 500 and it takes years for some to win it. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal have been at it for more than a decade and neither has won yet. I think many have prepared themselves that neither will win this race if they haven't won it already. Tony Kanaan didn't win it until his 12th attempt. Will Power won it last year in his 11th attempt. Some drivers never win it. George Snider and Gary Bettenhausen made 22 starts and 21 starts respectively and neither won it. Michael Andretti made 16 starts and led 431 laps and never won it. Ted Horn made ten Indianapolis 500 starts, finished in the top four in nine of those starts, completed all 500 miles eight times for a total of 1,944 of a possible 2,000 laps but none of those laps led were the 200th lap; none of those finishes were first place.

We cannot deny Alonso's competitiveness but you have to wonder if he will return to attempt the Indianapolis 500 again in 2020. Things are going to change if he is going to make another attempt. This might have been the last straw with McLaren for Alonso. After four years in a futile Formula One entry and the heartbreaking end to his first Indianapolis 500, cruelly by a Honda engine expiring, the one thing from his Formula One season that he hoped to avoid, missing the race has to see him investigate other endeavor, especially off the back of his success at Le Mans and Daytona where he won with Toyota and Wayne Taylor Racing driving a Cadillac. It is clear there are other places where he can succeed and for Alonso to achieve this great accomplishment it may have to be done with a team other than McLaren.

It is easy to run from failure. Alonso is not going to let it end like this. The man is too proud to let failure be his lasting mark. He already has to live with the dismal end to his Formula One career. He isn't going to let the same happen when it comes to Indianapolis.

Alonso is likely already shopping for a new home. He has to go after Ed Carpenter Racing because that team put three cars in the top four spots on the grid. I think Alonso would feel comfortable re-joining the Andretti organization and I don't think he would turn down an opportunity from Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi if offered but we have to look at this realistically and this could take longer than Alonso and others would like.

Alonso may get the team he desires but how long will he go on chasing this one victory? Is he here until he wins it? Alonso is 37 years old and he could easily come back for another seven or eight years but are we to expect he will be making a tenth Indianapolis 500 start if he hasn't won it yet? Will push come to shove and he reach a breaking point at 40 and decide it is no longer for him if he has yet to win the Indianapolis 500? Will he go until he is 50? Will Alonso open his own wallet to go after the Triple Crown or will it come down to others funding the effort? Will Alonso shift his focus to other interests, such as the Dakar Rally, Daytona 500, Bathurst 1000 or some other event?

One victory is in Alonso's way from greatness, from a seat with Graham Hill. These races are not any easier than they were when Hill conquered them all nearly five decades ago. Alonso is on the back nine of his career, though he still may have a way to go until he reaches the clubhouse, the question is at what point in his pursuit will have to swallow the hardest pill of not completing his challenge?

Nothing lasts forever and neither will Alonso's pursuit of the Triple Crown. It will either end in glory or acceptance of another defeat.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Simon Pagenaud and Indianapolis 500 qualifying but did you know...

Marc Márquez won MotoGP's French Grand Prix while his brother Álex won the Moto2 race. It was Marc's third victory from five races and it was Álex's first victory in Moto2 since Japan 2017. John McPhee won the Moto3 race, his first victory since the 2016 round at Brno.

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR All-Star Race after advancing from the Open. Kyle Busch won the Truck race, his fifth victory in his five starts.

Philipp Eng and René Rast split Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from Zolder. It was Eng's first DTM victory.

Beitske Visser won the W Series race from Zolder.

Yuhi Sekiguchi won the Super Formula race from Autopolis.

Thed Björk won the first and third World Touring Car Cup races from Zandvoort with Esteban Guerrieri taking the second race.

The #61 R.Ferri Motorsports Ferrari of Miguel Molina and Toni Vilander and the #9 K-PAX Racing Bentley of Álvaro Parente and Andy Soucek split the Blancpain World Challenge America races from Mosport.

The #47 Nolasport Porsche of Jason Hart and Matt Travis and the #34 Murillo Racing Mercedes-AMG of Matt Fassnacht and Christian Szymczak split the GT4 America SprintX races.

Nicolai Elghanayan and Spencer Pumpelly split the two GT4 America Sprint races.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Monaco Grand Prix.
Coca-Cola 600.
Formula E is back in Berlin.
Supercars has a round at Winton Motor Raceway.
Super GT will be at Suzuka.