As he left his first press conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 2017, Fernando Alonso stepped on a motorized skateboard and quickly disappeared into the crowd, sublimely cool yet mostly unnoticed by fans milling behind the Pagoda in the track’s infield.
Alonso won’t be as inconspicuous or as subtle this time around, but he will be as cool as ever.
The benefits of Alonso’s return to the Indianapolis 500 in 2019 -- announced Saturday with a tweet of a photo of IMS with the words “We’re Back #mclarenIndy” – belong to everyone. The race and IMS get a boost in attention. Fans get an anticipated treat. Fellow drivers get to compete against a two-time Formula One world champion and winner of 32 F1 races.
The benefits of Alonso’s decision go beyond the ancillary. Largely they return to him, full circle.
Alonso gets another, better-defined shot at his goal of completing the final leg auto racing’s triple crown – winning Indy, the F1 Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s an unofficial yet highly esteemed feat made slightly less impossible by Alonso’s win at Le Mans in June.
“I’ve made clear for some time my desire to achieve the Triple Crown,” Alonso said in Saturday’s release from McLaren Racing announcing the news. “I had an incredible experience at Indianapolis in 2017, and I knew in my heart of hearts I had to go back if the opportunity was there. I’m especially glad to be returning with McLaren. This was always my first choice if the team decided to do it, so I’m delighted they’ve decided to go ahead.”
On April 23, 2017, Alonso sat at a table in an Andretti Autosport transporter at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and talked with four journalists about his preparation and chances for the 101st Running of the Indy 500. Days earlier, he’d announced his decision to compete in the 2017 race.
“I need to learn all of these things,” Alonso said at the time. “To learn them alone would take two years. To learn it with some help would take six months. But I have two weeks. I will need a lot of help.”
“I will need the help to be competitive. I’m very open-minded, knowing that the series is completely different, the cars are completely different, and superspeedways require a driving technique and a driving feeling that’s completely different and that I don’t have yet.”
Turns out he was good at it from the first day. He was near the top of the practice charts leading up to qualifying, where he secured a middle second-row start. He led 27 laps of the 200-lap race before a mechanical failure ended his attempt and left him with a 24th-place finish.
Afterward, Alonso hinted at the possibility of a future return.
“If I come back here, at least I know how everything is,” he said. “It won’t be the first time I do restarts and pit stops (in the Indy car format). We’ll see what happens in the following years. We’ll obviously keep pursuing this challenge because it’s not completed.”
The Triple Crown doesn’t have a trophy or cash prize. Its only reward is prestige. The traditional version of it – Indy, Monaco and Le Mans – has only been completed once, by Graham Hill in 1972. The alternate version – Indy, Le Mans and the F1 season championship – is just as difficult and rare.
Seven drivers have completed two of the three legs of the traditional version, including A.J. Foyt, Juan Pablo Montoya and Bruce McLaren. Only Jochen Rindt has claim to winning the alternate version; eight others, including Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve, have completed two legs of it.
Alonso has won two of the three legs of both versions. Only Indy remains, and – judging from the ease with which he got up to speed in 2017 – it’s clearly doable in 2019.
“It’s a tough race and we’ll be up against the best, so it will be a huge challenge,” he said in Saturday's release. “But we’re racers, and that’s why we race. One of the things I’m looking forward to most is seeing the fans again, who are absolutely fantastic.”
Fire up the skateboard. This is bound to be sublimely cool.