Thomas Maher looks at Fernando Alonso's Indy 500 bow and the simultaneous Monaco GP weekend
The glittering Mediterranean. Sinuous narrow streets armed to the teeth with miles of metal barriers. Glorious sunshine, and the caterwaul of engines bouncing off casinos. Monte Carlo is a near perfect venue for the next instalment of Formula 1 2017, a season long saga that is only starting to develop its main storyline.
It’s the venue where World Champions shine, due to the unforgiving nature of the track. 2.78 miles with no discernible straight bit, as well as having to thread their cars at frightening speeds through the barriers means that only the elite usually shine in Monaco. However, this year, the field is missing one of its Champions.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso has opted to miss this year’s race, instead choosing to take part in the Indianapolis 500 - another gold standard race, but one away from the echo chamber of F1 that Alonso has been immersed in since 2001. The jewel of the IndyCar series calendar, Indy is 500 miles of intense, non-stop 200+ mph duelling around the famous oval - a very different challenge from the road and street circuits that Formula 1 uses. Having seemingly grown tired of running around at the back of Formula 1 with an uncompetitive and unreliable McLaren, Alonso is eyeing up greener pastures and managed to convince McLaren CEO and board to enter a car into the race as a one off. Running as an Andretti entry, the McLaren IndyCar will be powered by Honda’s Indy engine, which is an altogether more competitive beast than their poor F1 effort.
Alonso has immediately proven why he remains one of the most highly regarded drivers in the world, despite racing in the wilderness for the last couple of years. Competitive from the off in Indy practice, he has slowly grown in confidence. Having backed out from running alongside cars through the banked corners of the oval in initial sessions, he has built up to running in the top ten speed-wise. His qualifying was sublime. Making it through into the top nine shoot out for pole position last Sunday, Alonso put in his four qualifying laps at an average speed of 231mph. Building up his average speed over the first three laps, a rarity due to tyre life, the two time F1 champion left the commentators breathless as he snatched provisional pole. While he eventually got shuffled down to P5 by more experienced men, Alonso’s efforts have caught the attention of the Indy world, and he is now one of the favourites to take the win this coming Sunday. However, running in the pack without error for 500 miles is a different story to driving by himself in qualifying, and his lack of racing nous on ovals means he could be easy prey for those around him. Never discount him though - Alonso is ferociously competitive and has the machinery to potentially win outright - a win that would send him back to the stratosphere of motorsport.
Fernando Alonso, of Spain, drives into turn one during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday, May 21, 2017 in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
As a result of his heady experiences in America this week, Alonso is hardly likely to regret not being in his usual seat. While McLaren are without their champ, they are getting one back in change - Jenson Button returns for a one off appearance in Alonso’s car. Having taken a sabbatical/retired (only he knows for sure which) at the end of 2016, Button remains under contract as a McLaren employee, and has agreed to return. After all, he only has to saunter down from his Monaco apartment to climb into the car and drive it around for a while with absolutely no consequences to his career should he perform poorly. If he’s really unlucky/lucky (again, only he knows which), the car won’t even run for more than five laps and he can be back at home on Sunday in time to watch Alonso going for a rookie win at the Brickyard. Despite the lack of competitive prospects waiting for him in the car, Button is sure to enjoy the fan response to his return, and the experience may convince him one way or the other about whether he misses F1 sufficiently to look for a proper return.
Monaco’s anachronistic nature means that there could be a change in the pecking order this time out. Spain was very much a two horse race between Ferrari and Mercedes, with almost nothing separating Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel on pace. Ferrari seemed on edge during the race, pulling the trigger with an early pit-stop for Vettel while leading the race in the opening quarter, ultimately putting themselves on the back foot later in the race when Mercedes put Hamilton on the Medium tyre a few laps later. Together with a failure to pit Vettel under the Virtual Safety Car period later in the race, handing a further time advantage to Mercedes, Ferrari seemed intent on costing themselves the victory - which they eventually did when Hamilton swooped around the outside of the Ferrari into Turn 1 on Lap 42. At a track that exposes any weaknesses with a car’s chassis or engine, Ferrari weren’t lacking in either department, and this is a great omen for the rest of the year.
Both teams should continue to dominate in Monaco, but they could be joined by surprises. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was the honorary winner last year, losing out to Hamilton due to an RBR pit error, and himself and Max Verstappen are more than capable of joining in the fight when the car allows. Whether Newey’s RB13 is good enough to join in the fight is something we have to wait and see as the weekend develops, but my gut feeling is that Force India, or even Renault, could be a surprise package this weekend. Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon have been consistently scoring points this year, with Ocon proving himself to be almost already at Perez’s level, and Nico Hulkenberg’s switch to Renault has proven to be a decent gamble so far. The first true Renault factory car in the team’s current iteration is nimble and quick, and Renault’s engine is not as calamitously woeful as the last three years. In their last year as a full factory outfit in 2010, Renault fought for pole position with Robert Kubica; Hulkenberg could be a major threat for points this weekend.
A tremendous weekend of motorsport awaits, with the Vettel vs. Hamilton, Ferrari vs. Mercedes fight heating up nicely. While still friendly with each other, the two most decorated drivers of the current era are now in a direct head to head, and this will start turning more and more sour as tensions start rising. A near collision in Spain was the first hint of acrimony. Will Monaco add more fuel to the fire? Once the winner in Monaco is decided, the teams and drivers will all scramble to find a television to catch Alonso’s efforts at Indianapolis. Should he taste victory there, will the prospect of finishing outside the points in Canada in a fortnight’s time really appeal to him?
Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.