BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -
Fernando Alonso is on a personal "Indy 500 adventure" that is both a labor of love and ambition for the two-time Formula One champion.
The Spaniard will attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 next month, and hopefully, some day, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's part of his quest to win what's considered the Triple Crown of racing - Alonso already has won the Monaco Grand Prix - but this bid will require him to master new cars and racing styles.
Maybe that's why Indy is so appealing at this stage of his successful career.
"I want to be the most complete driver in the world and the best driver in the world and I want to win all the series in different cars with different driving techniques," Alonso said Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, where he'd flown from Europe to watch Andretti Autosport compete in the IndyCar race.
To be the most complete driver in the world, Alonso has a lofty goal for Indianapolis: "I need to win it. And if it's not this year, we will plan it for the next attempt."
Alonso drives for struggling McLaren in Formula One. He will be the sixth entry for Andretti Autosport at Indy in a partnership with Honda and McLaren. The 35-year-old has begun preparing for Indy by testing on a simulator, where the walls aren't so intimidating and there's no traffic to negotiate.
He flew to Alabama on Saturday, had dinner with his fellow Andretti drivers and flashed both confidence and humor at a Sunday news conference. Team and IndyCar executives believe the Formula One-to-Indy move by such an accomplished driver is a win for all sides, bringing exposure across the ocean in both directions.
"I don't think there's one person that's involved in this thing that's not going to get something out of it," said Michael Andretti, founder and CEO of Andretti Autosport. "I think it's going to be a fantastic thing. I think there's so much interest all over the world, and it's going to be great for Formula One, great for IndyCar, great for the Indy 500, great for our team, great for McLaren."
Andretti, a former IndyCar champion, raced for McLaren in Formula One in 1993.
Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar's parent company, Hulman & Company, plans a European tour to build on the renewed interest.
McLaren's Zak Brown said he sees no downside to the endeavor. The team brought in Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy 500 winner, as driver coach for Alonso. And Alonso will get a full day test at the speedway early next month.
All parties have admitted that if McLaren and Honda weren't struggling so much in F1 right now, Alonso never could have skipped Monaco to race Indianapolis.
"I'd like to see McLaren here on a more regular basis," said Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology. "And would we do it with Fernando again? Absolutely. I hope that we have the problem of Monaco and Indy in the same weekend and we are fighting for the championship.
"So what happens in 2018, we'll have to wait and see, because obviously we're working very hard to get Fernando and Stoffel Vandoorne a much more competitive car than we are producing right now."
This is McLaren's first time in the Indy 500 in 38 years. Stefan Wilson gave up his ride to accommodate Alonso, and Brown called him "the unsung hero in this whole process."
Alonso wants to wait until after the May 28 race to seriously contemplate a possible repeat performance. He's also uncertain when he'd run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which could force him to miss multiple Formula One races.
Then, it's back to his regular job, preparing for the Russian Grand Prix. He'll also run the Spanish Grand Prix on May 14.
Alonso said he didn't tell anyone, even his family, about his decision until the day of his announcement.
As for his F1 peers, Alonso professes to learn their opinions only from comments in the media.
"We don't talk much there," he said. "It's a different world. I don't know, the only thing that I know is probably what you guys (reporters) read, you know, because it's what I read, as well. Some of them are happy for me and happy for this thing and curious to see how competitive we can be. Some others, they are not happy with anything in life. So this was another thing for their own problems.
"But it's OK. I think, different world."