May was a good month in motor racing. Spain and Monaco for Formula 1, Monaco and Paris for Formula E and the Indy 500 for IndyCar. Fernando Alonso’s entry in the Indy 500 was a stroke of marketing, commercial and PR genius by McLaren. Whilst it was always tipped as Alonso looking to fulfil a childhood dream, most observers saw it as an attempt by McLaren to divert attention away from the failing Formula 1 project with Honda. The fact is, Operation Alonso suited many different agendas and did absolutely nothing to harm the reputations of both series.
- RAISING FORMULA 1’S AMERICAN PROFILE
The USA has long been that itch that Formula 1 just couldn’t reach. It’s been topical since Liberty Media came to the sport. Formula 1 and America never truly happened. The 2005 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a disaster with fans throwing beer cans onto the track in disgust at the shambles that was unfolding due to a tyre war. Formula 1 never really, truly recovered, especially in IndyCar and NASCAR’s heartland. With one of Formula 1’s biggest talents coming to America to attempt to land the biggest trophy of all, tongues will have been wagging and even the die-hard traditionalists must have been curious. With Alonso getting Rookie of the Year, qualifying strongly and leading the race, even a slim possibility of winning the whole thing, how could you not have been sucked in!
- SHOWCASING F1 DRIVERS’ TRUE ABILITIES
Operation Alonso dominated the Indy 500 conversation in Europe and the wider motorsport world. The hype around the former World Champion drowned out the fact that there were several other ex-Formula 1 drivers in the field as well. From elder statesman Juan Pablo Montoya to Takuma Sato and Max Chilton. The field was awash with Formula 1 talent. Last year’s Rookie of the Year winner, former Formula 1 driver Alex Rossi was also back up at the front to reinforce the talent pool that transitions from Formula 1 to Indy. The talent from Formula 1 has always had a good showing in America, if you go back a little further, Hill and Clark won the blue riband event showing that Formula 1 drivers can drive in circles too. Rarely, if ever, have similar levels of success been enjoyed when moving in the opposite direction across the Atlantic.
- MCLAREN’S COMMERCIAL DRIVE
One of the prime reasons for Operation Alonso in my view was to drive commercial awareness for McLaren in the USA. With Zak Brown freshly installed at the helm and looking for big numbers on cheques to keep the team going, the hype will not have been wasted. There can be little doubt that Zak will have been exploiting every facet of the three stints for Alonso behind the wheel of his Andretti car. I expect Zak has filled his North American pipeline and will be looking to move conversations along during the Canadian GP. Whether the gamble will prove to have been an expensive cost of sale or a resounding success will most likely not be seen until 2018.
- EYES WIDE OPENED
For Alonso, the past 15 years he has raced in the cocoon of Formula 1. Operating behind the veil of the paddock gates and imposing team motorhomes, not coming out unless for sponsor engagements or to drive the car. None of that in Indy for Mr Formula 1. Watching from the outside I was pleasantly surprised by the positive attitude and character that Fernando displayed when faced with the American way. Many commentators had said that this would be a huge challenge for him, culturally, the access the fans, sponsors, media get in Indy is far greater than in Formula 1. What we saw from Fernando was a personality and one that engaged with his environment and new surroundings. Perhaps, just maybe, Fernando maintain this openness and charm and can bring this aspect of his experience back with him and show the other Formula 1 teams what can be done. Formula 1 is moving in the right direction with fan engagement, but there is room for more.
Ultimately, both Formula 1 and IndyCar mutually benefited from Operation Alonso. UK audiences on BT Sport, whilst low for overall numbers, for the race were at 203,000. Somewhat better than the 12,000 the year before. With peak viewing coming in at around 555% increase year on year the Alonso affect worked. If you consider that a reputed two million watched the rookie test on YouTube, you can see why the power of the OTT model is of immediate interest to Liberty Media and why the UK’s SKY deal for exclusivity from is a real worry.
I have no doubt that McLaren took some Formula 1 learnings to Indy that will have benefitted Andretti Autosport. Whether from McLaren Racing or McLaren Applied Technologies, Zak and his team and Alonso too will have imparted an alternative view on ways of doing things, things that could ultimately have benefited Takuma Sato and lead to him becoming the 1st Japanese driver to win the event.
Whether Operation Alonso will be repeated, whether it allows McLaren to hang onto their talented star or secure more revenue and whether Alonso can achieve the fabled Triple Crown remains to be seen. What we can be sure of is that it Alonso made a great go of it endearing himself to many more fans around the world and learning a thing or too along the way – just look at what he did after his retirement at the recent Canadian GP if you need positive affirmation.
Maybe next time Mr Alonso.