There was a time when racing drivers were exactly that: racing drivers. They weren’t simply Formula One drivers because they would drive the wheels off anything they could get their hands on. It was quite normal for an F1 star, even a world champion, to race in F2, sportscars, Indycars and touring cars. Racers would go back and forth across the Atlantic week after week in pursuit of motor racing glory and when the checkered flag fell on the northern hemisphere season they would head to Australia and New Zealand to race.
By competing at Daytona in January and committing to a season in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) alongside his regular F1 ride with McLaren, Fernando Alonso is discovering a whole new world of racing. His old mucker, Jenson Button, now retired from F1, is busy with Super GT in Japan and a WEC campaign. Alonso and Button will be joined on the grid at the Le Mans 24 Hours, the blue riband of the WEC, by their old F1 rival and twice Indianapolis 500 winner, Juan Pablo Montoya. It’s refreshing to see.
The biggest motor racing story of 2017 was Alonso taking part in the Indy 500. He didn’t win, he didn’t even finish and some snooty F1 types took a dim view of him racing at the Brickyard instead of Monaco, but it opened the Spaniard’s eyes to a world beyond the self-important F1 Paddock and made him enjoy the simple thrill of racing again.
Alonso will not be at Indy this year, but I bet he wishes he was. Monaco on Suday week might offer him a chance of upsetting F1’s predictable order, but Indianapolis is the place to go racing and Monaco isn’t.
F1 drivers really need to get out more. They can fly in extreme comfort, stay in the best hotels and have everything arranged for them, all they have to do is race. Alonso has been reacquainted with the joy of winning through his foray into sportscars and is the better for it. More of his F1 colleagues should do the same.
If F1 wants to grow their sport to new audiences it should encourage their biggest names to go and compete in other series. And if it means moving the Monaco Grand Prix back a week so it doesn’t clash with Indianapolis then so be it. If a contemporary grand prix driver won the 500 or Le Mans (as Nico Hulkenberg did in 2015) it would be the best advert the sport could ask for.
There’ll be those who say it can’t be done because of contracts, promotional duties, danger and fatigue. But it was possible 40 years ago and racing was much more perilous and the world harder to get around so those excuses don’t really rub.
F1 is regarded as the be all and end all of motorsport, but drivers shouldn’t have to wait until they are finished at the top table to rediscover the joy. Alonso is doing it right by going racing, others should follow.