Alonso to drive for McLaren in Indy 500 but F1 return unlikely

Giles Richards
Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Fernando Alonso will not return to Formula One with McLaren in the foreseeable future, their chief executive, Zak Brown, has said. However the team announced on Tuesday that he will drive for them at this year’s Indy 500 in pursuit of motor racing’s triple crown.

Brown ruled out another F1 drive for the double world champion who has previously enjoyed two stints with the team and has insisted he was keeping open his options of returning to F1 in 2021. Brown was adamant that he would not risk McLaren’s recent resurgence, which he believed was in no small way down to the “magic” touch of the new young drivers Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz.

When asked if he would consider taking on Alonso again, Brown was unequivocal. “No. We are in a different place now,” he said. “That’s not a reflection on him, we have two great young drivers who are really fast that are working well together. The fans like them and we have a rhythm now and would not want to disturb that.”

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Alonso, now 38, drove one season in 2007 for McLaren having won the title for Renault in 2005 and 2006. However, Lewis Hamilton’s stunning debut that year created friction with the Spaniard who left at its close. He returned to the team in 2015, when they had begun a new works deal with Honda engines. The partnership did not produce results with the car woefully off the pace and unreliable. Alonso was a vocal critic of the engine manufacturer and stepped away from F1 at the end of 2018.

He remained contracted to McLaren as an ambassador but the team did not renew that agreement when it ended last year. In 2019 McLaren brought in the British rookie Norris, who is 20 years old, and the Spaniard Sainz, who had completed four seasons in F1 with Toro Rosso and Renault.

Last year the McLaren-Renault package was far more competitive and Norris and Sainz turned in a series of impressive races. McLaren were fourth, 54 points ahead of their nearest competitor, Renault. It was their best finish since 2012 and there was a renewed buoyancy about the team that Brown attributed at least in part to his new drivers: “They are the stars of the sport but everyone is quite relaxed around them. I wouldn’t want to disturb that part of the magic that is making everything come together.”

Alonso is determined to try to complete motor racing’s triple crown, a feat achieved only by Graham Hill. He has wins at Monaco and Le Mans but still requires victory at the Indy 500. He competed in the 500 in 2017 for Andretti, racing in a partnership with McLaren but, having led for 27 laps, retired after his Honda engine failed with 21 laps to go. McLaren’s entry for Alonso in 2019 failed to qualify after a series of technical problems.

McLaren already have the drivers Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward and two cars with their Arrow McLaren SP team entered for this year but have now confirmed Alonso will join the team in a third car at the Brickyard in May.

“I have a special relationship with McLaren; we’ve been through a lot together and that creates a bond, a loyalty that is strong,” said Alonso. “I have maximum respect for this race and everyone who competes in it and all I want to do is race against them and give my best, as always.”

Brown acknowledged that while McLaren were confident with their F1 lineup, they were happy in welcoming Alonso back to the team for Indy. “We’ve always said we’re open to running Fernando in a third car for the 500,” said Brown. “So we’re delighted he’s decided to join us. Fernando is one of the greatest drivers in the sport and it’s fantastic to have him as part of the team.”

As things stand few competitive F1 seats remain for 2021. Ferrari have already committed to Charles Leclerc and Red Bull to Max Verstappen. Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are out of contract at the end of 2020 but Mercedes are intent on retaining their six-time world champion for another year at least. It is highly unlikely any of the big three teams would take a chance on Alonso.