Remember when racing drivers used to compete in many racing series? Formula One driver Jim Clark drove a Lotus 38 to victory at the Indy 500 in 1965 and changed the racing world forever. Overnight, the front engine beasts that had dominated Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades were swept into history’s dust bin and the era of rear engine race cars began. Clark was the first non-American driver to win the Indy 500 since 1916. He remains the only driver in history to win the Indy 500 and Formula One World Championship in the same year. Clark actually chose to skip Monaco to compete at Indy.
Now, more than 50 years later, another Formula One driving champion is skipping the Monaco grand prix to race in the Indianapolis 500. Fernando Alonso won the driver’s title in 2005. Since then, he has struggled mightily with uncompetitive cars, first at Ferrari and lately at McLaren.
Now he says will skip this year’s Formula One race in Monaco. Instead, he will drive a sixth car for Andretti Motorsport, the team the won the Indy 500 in 2014 and again last year. According to reports in Racer, Jenson Button will take Alonso’s seat in Monaco. Button is taking a one year sabbatical while he and the team figure out what his role will be going forward, if any.
History Repeats Itself
The are many stormy crosscurrents linking Indianapolis and Formula One. In 2000, Indianapolis speedway head Tony George defied his board of directors to sign a deal with Formula One. A road course connecting parts of the famous high speed oval was added to the infield. More than 300,000 people came the first year but that wasn’t enough to please the muckety mucks of Formula One.
Bernie Ecclestone called Indianapolis a “cow town.” (He had no such complaints about Baku in Azerbaijan, however.) The drivers complained bitterly that the infield section Tony George built was “Mickey Mouse.” Then came 2005. During qualifying, a Michelin rear tire on Ralf Schumacher’s race car exploded at the apex of the last turn — the fastest corner on the track. At the time, Michelin and Bridgestone were engaged in a fierce struggle for supremacy in motor racing.
The decision was made to keep all the Michelin shod cars in the pits while Michael Schumacher took the start in his Ferrari. Only his teammate and 4 other Ferrari powered cars raced that day while angry fans jeered and threw debris on the track. The wounds from that fiasco never healed and the last Formula One race at Indianapolis took place in 2007. Tony George’s expensive bet on a road course within the historic oval track was a costly failure.
The Andrettis and Formula One
There is even more history between the Andrettis and Formula One. Mario Andretti was world champion in 1978 driving for Lotus. His son, Michael, was signed by McLaren to partner with Ayrton Senna in 1993. The season was a disaster for the younger Andretti, who was commuting back and forth from America via the Concorde SST. The team resented his decision not to live in Europe full time. Years later, his son Marco claimed that McLaren boss Ron Dennis sabotaged Michael’s chances with the team.
Now Alonso, another McLaren driver, is about to skip the most glamorous race of the Formula One season to drive for the Andretti team at Indianapolis, the same cow town Formula One spurned a decade ago. Racer says the deal to let Alonso drive in the Indy 500 was brokered between McLaren chief Zak Brown and IndyCar head Mark Miles. It is significant that neither Tony George nor Ron Dennis is still active in motor racing. It also doesn’t hurt that Bernie Ecclestone has finally been put out to pasture.
Will You Be Watching The Indy 500 This Year?
Alonso in an Andretti car at Indy. The ironies are too delicious to ignore. I think I will be watching Indy for the first time in many years just to see if Fernando in a competitive car still has what it takes to carve his way through a grid full of his peers.
Source: Road & Track Photo credit: Wikipedia