Late changes of schedule have been known in the past for political and practical reasons. But never because of the need to accommodate one driver. So what does the change of World Endurance Championship (WEC) date mean exactly when it comes to ensuring Fernando Alonso’s participation in a full season?
Is the sportscar series dying on its feet? Are McLaren more or less admitting they have little hope of doing anything meaningful in F1? Does anyone give a toss about the professional sports car drivers already committed to both the WEC and the now clashing final of the IMSA Petit Le Mans Championship? Despite Alonso’s undeniable talent and pulling power, is this a step too far?
The only certainty has been the split in opinion created by the WEC moving the final round of their championship in order not to clash with the United States Grand Prix and have Alonso race for Toyota at the Fuji Speedway on 14 October.
You can understand it from Toyota’s point of view. As the only surviving manufacturer in the top tier of WEC, they have to cope with criticism, even if they win a race against themselves or, worse, an LMP2 team causes huge embarrassment. Having Alonso on board not only goes some way towards achieving the desired goal but also diverts attention (notwithstanding Fernando’s penchant for complaining loudly when equipment fails to match his not unreasonable expectation).
It was a no-brainer for Toyota to ask for a date change to allow the double World Champion to race their car on their own circuit. The surprise is that the move was sanctioned at such a late stage.
When the various 2018 calendars were proposed last summer, the Fuji round was shifted forward one week to avoid a clash with the final of the IMSA championship in which several WEC drivers were also hoping to take part. With the final dates subsequently reversed and rubber-stamped by the FIA, those drivers now find themselves having signed contracts that are in potential breach.
Their collective unhappiness over a modification to suit one driver is easily understood. As is the decision by IMSA not to alter their date thanks to TV contracts, advertising deals and logistical arrangements already in place.
The disruptive move is also difficult to comprehend insofar as Alonso is supposedly chasing victory at Le Mans in a bid to claim the so-called Triple Crown (victory at Indy, Le Mans and, it says here, the Monaco GP even though Graham Hill, the only man to have done it, referred to the Triple Crown as comprising the F1 World Championship rather than Monaco. But that’s a future debate more fun than this one).
Good luck to Fernando for going for it at a time when it’s no longer fashionable or commercially feasible for F1 drivers to multitask in other racing categories. The thing that’s interesting is McLaren’s take on their star’s participation in the entire WEC championship.
Zak Brown, McLaren’s Executive Director, has rightly pointed out that Fernando loves competing and he would be filling his otherwise free weekends either karting or playing golf. With the greatest of respect (and even allowing for Fuji being handily placed one week after the Japanese GP), travelling to and taking part in an endurance race has to be a touch more demanding than getting your elbows out at a local kart track or following a white ball around the greensward.
Given the micromanagement of F1 drivers in intense detail these days, you could be forgiven for thinking McLaren do not expect to be running competitively even though more than 700 men and women currently flat out at the McLaren Technology Centre might want to disagree.
On the one hand, there’s keeping your boy happy and ensuring his toys stay in the pram. On the other, there’s compromising the efforts of one of the oldest men on the grid at a time when, at best, you’re supposed to be chasing Red Bull Racing with a similar engine and, at least, coming out top in a closely packed midfield that threatens to be sorted out by fractions of a second.
The contradiction comes with any failure to get a decent result probably ensuring that Alonso will quit F1; or be forced to quit F1 because of a lack of competitive seats on offer.
At the moment, Fernando is smiling all the way – as well he might. But are those in charge, from Paris to Tokyo to Woking, guilty of something close to an infatuation that now has unpopular consequences in several quarters?
At this rate of going, they’ll be moving the Indy 500 to a Wednesday any time soon.