Honda’s refusal to allow Fernando Alonso to use their engines for a second assault on the Indy 500 was supposed to be the final chapter of a painful story. Yet far from marking the end of what had become a protracted public relations fiasco, confirmation that Alonso will use Chevrolet power could yet provide a bitter epilogue.
To those familiar with the trials and tribulations of Honda’s return to F1 with McLaren, their unwillingness to revisit the McLaren-Andretti-Honda partnership that ran Alonso in the 101st Indianapolis 500 came as no surprise. By the end of the end of the 2017 F1 season, both Alonso and Honda were happy to see the back of each other.
Turning a critic into an advocate
Honda’s PR team were tearing their hair out for most of the 3-year 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 disaster.
Honda had hoped, in time, to turn their most disgruntled customer in the world into a race-winning advocate for the brand. There is no better solution than converting your biggest critic into your biggest fan. But McLaren and Alonso waved the white flag early and the opportunity was lost.
Now Honda as a brand is completely free of Alonso and McLaren. The lingering issue of Alonso’s unfinished business in IndyCar and Michael Andretti’s enthusiasm for another McLaren – Andretti Autosport tie-up is delt with. Indeed it is not hard to imagine many Honda executives thinking: ‘now he is Chevy’s problem’.
Yet the decision by Honda could well prove to be a huge own-goal, irrespective of whether McLaren and Alonso manage to pull off victory this May.
Honda’s gift to Chevrolet
By their actions – or arguably their inaction – Honda has given Chevrolet an early Christmas present.
For starters, they have helped create what could prove to be a potent competitor. While the new-for-2019 McLaren effort will be running without the direct support of Andretti Autosport, it would be very naive to think that they are flying solo on this project. Where the expertise and support will come from is yet to become clear but this single-car, Indy-only effort is going to have more in common with the likes of Andretti and Penske than minnows Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
What the McLaren IndyCar entry might lack in experience it will certainly make up for in motivation to win. After a sobering failure to progress in F1 following their switch to Renault engines, the team will be very determined to beat Honda on the grandest of stages. That in itself should give Honda cause for concern, even when it will field strong contenders from Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Ganassi.
Alonso’s last chance for a legacy
As far as Alonso is concerned, his determination to win the 500 and complete the fabled ‘triple crown’ is born out of bitter frustration.
Twenty years ago you would not have found a young Alonso dreaming of joining Graham Hill in that most elite of clubs. He is angry that the records books will not reflect his greatness relative to F1 peers, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel. While the triple crown is not the legacy Alonso had originally envisaged, it is the only legacy that remains open to him. He is therefore not going to Indy or Daytona to make up the numbers.
IndyCar’s biggest marketing asset
Secondly and perhaps more significantly, Honda has given Chevy the biggest marketing asset available in the run-up to the 2019 Indy 500. Short of Jimmie Johnson, Lewis Hamilton or Joey Logano deciding to do a one-off at Indy next year, Alonso will be the story and centre of attention.
Just like Honda, Chevrolet is in the business of selling automobiles. Every other form of motorsport they are involved in is designed to promote their brand and sell more cars. Admittedly Alonso lacks the pull in the USA of Johnson or Logano. But General Motors brands are no longer limited to the Americas. Their cars – and Chevrolet’s in particular – are truly global which is reflected in the fact GM now sells more cars internationally than it does in the USA. From that perspective Alonso is far more valuable.
Irrespective of the result come May 26, for General Motors it is a marketing coup to be running Alonso in both the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona (with Cadillac) and the Indy 500. Coverage for the brand in the build-up to and during the month of May will outstrip anything Honda can muster, even with previous winners and likely contenders Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay on their roster.
The end result is the key of course. No amount of pre-race exposure will eclipse the coverage lavished upon the driver, team and manufacturer that rolls into victory lane. If Alonso and McLaren come up short or fail to replicate the speed shown in 2017, Honda will breathe a sigh of relief. Until then, no one knows how this particular story ends and it could have one final, unpleasant twist in the tale for Honda.