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Indycar needs to take the momentum of Alonso’s Indy 500 and run with it

May 29, 2017

In the end, there was a certain inevitability to the way Fernando Alonso’s uber-hyped Indy 500 ended.

Photograph by: Getty Images

The ominous smoke pouring from his detonated Honda engine had an all-too familiar look to it. It could have been a PR disaster for the Japanese car giant too, but with its favoured son – Takuma Sato – scoring the biggest result for a Japanese driver in motorsport history (sorry, but a single-handed Indy 500 win trumps being part of a three-man Le Mans 24-hour line-up), there was no way that the event could be seen as anything by a huge triumph for them.

The combination of the buzz Alonso’s storming debut created, combined with Sato’s enormous popularity in Japan, with the bonus of a spectacular crash from which both drivers emerged unscathed, meant that this was surely the highest profile Indy 500 since the days of Nigel Mansell.

In that halcyon period of the early to mid-1990s, Indycar – or CART as it was back then – had it all. Top level drivers from all over the world, but crucially in Al Unser Jr and Michael Andretti genuine top-level American superstars, fast, gorgeous cars and a huge TV audience and packed grandstands.

The writing was on the wall before the split took place, but recovery period since reunification has been long and slow. Indeed, at times it was tempting to wonder if it was simply impossible for open-wheel racing in the States to ever regain its previous lustre. Last weekend’s Indy 500 proved, emphatically, that it can.

The real challenge for the Indycar hierarchy is to capitalise on the leg-up the 500 has given it. It won’t be easy and despite Alonso’s insistence that he ‘definitely’ wants to come back, who knows when that might be?

While previously it would have been unthinkable to even suggest that Formula 1 is consulted over the Monaco GP date clash, the new, fan-friendly regime should at least be approachable. However, the 500 won’t move from Memorial Day weekend, and the Monaco Grand Prix has been on that same weekend more often than not. But it has taken place as early as May 7 and as late as June 4, so perhaps there is some room for manouevre.

The previous mantra of ‘F1 uber alles’ was based on the assumption that all other motorsport had to be subservient, that allowing it to have any sort of strength was an existential threat to Formula 1. But the rules of the game have changed. The algorithms of social media ie the way in which new fans are recruited these days, favours diversity, rewarding quantity – and geographic spread – rather than some outdated notion of brand loyalty.

In this world, a huge Indy 500, featuring one-off from F1 teams and drivers – creating undoubtedly the biggest race in the world – is a win/win situation. The F1 brand was not harmed by Alonso racing in the 500, especially after he went on to drive magnificently, demonstrating that F1’s claim to have the best drivers in the world is almost certainly true.

Will this persuade American race fans to tune in to watch the next grand prix? It’s in Canada, so the time zone couldn’t be better. And given the ovation he received as he stepped from his stricken car, it was obvious that his endeavors had won over the crowd. Some of that glory must be reflected onto F1.

And the opposite will be true as well. After a typically action-less Monaco GP, how many of the F1 fans who were watching the Indy 500 for the first time were converted to oval racing fans. Countless times I’ve heard people who call themselves motorsport fans decry oval racing as ‘easy’, ‘boring’, ‘just driving round in circles’ without have actually watched a race.

I can’t believe after watching that race, seeing the skill that’s required to pull off around-the-outside passes at 225mph or go four-wide at a restart and say it’s easy. Or to have seen Scott Dixon’s car get terrifyingly launched over the side of Jay Howard’s and think it was boring!

And aside from rallying and hillclimbing, all motorsport is going around in some form of a circle. The four turns at Indianapolis are all different and the track and weather are constantly changing meaning the driver has split-seconds to react to, or ideally pre-empt, what is happening.

So in the spirit of this motorsport nirvana that I’m imagining, here are a few other series swaps I’d like to see happen:

Lewis Hamilton to NASCAR

I was lucky enough to be there when Hamilton tested Tony Stewart’s NASCAR and could see for myself just how much he loved it. At the moment, Hamilton still has plenty to offer in F1, so there’s no sense in a permanent switch, but imagine the impact he could have in a couple of special guest appearances at the road course races?!

NASCAR, while still enormous, is having real trouble connecting with a young audience, and fans more ethnically diverse than its traditional blue collar supporters. Hamilton would create a buzz that would make Alonso’s Indy 500 turn look low-key!

Jeff Gordon to Le Mans

He was one of the most successful NASCAR drivers of all time, one of the most famous faces in US sport, and at heart, a true motorsport fan. His appearance – and victory in the Daytona 24 – shows that there’s a love of endurance racing there, it’s just the difference in regulations – that no-one outside of a small band of hardcore fans understands – that is stopping him and Cadillac from making this dream a reality.

Jenson Button to Formula E

After his one-off return in Monaco, Button says he’s done with F1. So, what about a switch to the new kid on the block? Button’s smooth style, and cerebral approaching to driving would be perfect for Formula E – and surely he’d be the ideal driver for Jaguar. He claims it doesn’t interest him, but I reckon it would be a superb move for all concerned.

Notes to editors:

Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 16 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.