Rather than compounding the misery and embarrassment of the failed McLaren-Honda F1 project, allowing a Honda-backed IndyCar team to run Fernando Alonso in 2019 only has upsides for the Japanese brand.
Fernando Alonso’s decision to take a sabbatical from F1 in 2019 has raised the real prospect of the two-time champion returning to IndyCar. The Indy 500 is the final jewel in Alonso’s ‘triple crown’ objective having secured a Le Mans 24 Hour win earlier this year. Under contract with McLaren until the end of 2019, it was widely assumed that Alonso would race again with the Andretti-McLaren-Honda outfit that was created for his rookie race.
However, a major stumbling block appears to be Honda and their severely dented pride.
Alonso can test, he just can’t race
According to multiple sources, Honda is willing to allow Alonso to test a Honda-powered car but not race in anything carrying their brand. To those familiar with the trial and tribulations of Honda’s return to F1 with McLaren, this should come as no surprise. By the end of the 2017 F1 season both Alonso and Honda were happy to see the back of each other.
Now with Alonso seeking new challenges and Honda at the top of their game in IndyCar, their paths look set to could cross again. But as it stands the Japanese manufacturer is unwilling to allow their former star to drive from them in IndyCar. A decision that, although understandable, looks like a huge mistake.
Turning a critic into an advocate
Honda’s PR department was tearing their hair out for most of the duration of the McLaren-Honda F1 partnership. Alonso’s radio messages and interviews were catnip for social media and the scale of the damage was magnified by who Alonso is. To borrow from social media parlance, having such a powerful influencer – one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time – openly criticise your efforts race after race was a public relations disaster.
Honda had hoped, in time, to turn their most disgruntled customer into first a less vocal critic, and then a race-winning advocate for the brand. Time ran out on those efforts in F1. But Honda and Alonso being competitive in IndyCar, maybe winning, maybe even taking the 500 together could be the equivalent of a PR ‘magic potion’.
What if Honda could take Alonso back to victory lane?
A pumped-up, competitive Alonso is a vocal supporter of his team and partners. The former Indy 500 rookie of the year wears his heart on his sleeve which guarantees passionate responses when the going is good (but equally so when it is bad as Honda knows). What better way to undo the damage caused by putting Alonso back to where he has always longed to be – victory lane?
A grateful, milk-covered Alonso praising Honda in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is as close to redemption as both parties will ever achieve. To waste the opportunity, especially when the reliability and performance of Honda’s IndyCar engines is in no doubt, is nonsensical.
The positive PR for Honda will only be heightened by the fact Alonso will be a media phenomenon when he returns to the USA. His attempt at another 500 and/or a full IndyCar programme will be akin to the Mansell-mania that gripped the series in 1993. While it will not reach those dizzy heights, the media storm around Alonso will far exceed anything the series has achieved since (excluding, ironically, Alonso’s Indy 500 debut).
Honda’s gift to Chevrolet
In light of Honda’s reluctance, rumours indicate McLaren and Andretti are trying to cobble together some alternative deal to circumvent the issue. Talk is of a McLaren/Andretti/Harding Racing deal using Harding’s Chevrolet engine supply. The team would be an Andretti-McLaren squad in all but name, whilst in theory protecting Andretti Autosports’ integrity as a Honda team.
Not only would this create a potent rival in Honda’s quest to win the 2019 Indy 500, it would also gift Chevy with the biggest story the series has had in decades.
They are – just like Honda – in IndyCar to promote their brand and sell more cars. Any alternative explanation about ‘synergies’ and ‘brand values’ is just marketing bull. Alonso may lack pull in the US but Chevrolet is a becoming global brand. Stripping it down to the basics, selling cars in Long Beach or Madrid is effectively no different. Were Honda to gift Chevy the opportunity to utilise Alonso, it would surely be a case of them cutting off their nose to spite their face.
The other ‘triple crown’
Alonso is sick of F1 because he cannot get a competitive ride. IndyCar, by contrast, offers an alternative where his driving talents should, in theory, be more richly rewarded.
His desire to secure the triple crown of race wins – Monaco, Le Mans, Indy – is born out of that frustration, not any long-held childhood dream to join Graham Hill in that most elite of clubs. He is angry that the records books will not reflect his greatness compared to F1 peers like Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
But as his desire to win multiple F1 titles has now made way for the triple crown, be in no doubt that this particular version is not necessarily set in stone.
The concept of the triple crown means different things to different people. For the majority, it is the Monaco-Indy-Le Mans combination but for others, Indy is swapped out for another great American race: the Daytona 500. In the immediate aftermath of Alonso’s shock announcement, various championship jumped on the IndyCar bandwagon by making half-serious/half-comedic overtures to him. Which of course included NASCAR by virtue of a cheeky ‘invitation’ to the 2019 Daytona 500.
Whilst a definite long shot, Honda would be wise to at least pay this some attention. NASCAR is in a blind panic right now. It finds itself in uncharted territory dealing with dwindling audiences, an embarrassment of a CEO and falling sponsorship revenue. A bit of Alonso-mania could be the perfect shot in the arm NASCAR needs.
Perhaps more importantly, if Alonso wins a Monaco-Le Mans-Daytona triple, it would make him the very first member of that particular motor racing club. An attractive proposition for a driver trying to carve his own place in motorsport history.