The Alonso Factor

The other day, I saw an article where Michael Andretti said that Fernando Alonso coming to IndyCar would have a similar impact as Nigel Mansell did when he came over in 1993. When I first saw that headline, I scoffed. I mean, Mansell was the defending World Champion when he defected from Williams and Formula One. Alonso would be thirteen seasons removed from his last championship if he raced in IndyCar in 2019.

But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Andretti.

We are not only talking about two completely different drivers, we are also trying to compare two different eras – on the track and off.

Most forget that Nigel Mansell was thirty-nine when he was crowned the 1992 Formula One Champion. His first full season in Formula One came in 1981 driving for Lotus. From 1981 to 1984, Mansell scored five podiums for Lotus, but finished no better in any of those seasons than thirteenth. He moved to Williams from 1985 through the 1988 season. There the results improved dramatically, finishing sixth, second, second and ninth respectively – winning a total of fifteen races in that span.

Mansell moved to Ferrari in 1989 for two seasons, where he finished fourth and fifth and won three times in 1989-90.

In 1991, Mansell moved back to Williams. He won five races in the ’91 season and finished second to Ayrton Senna in the championship. For 1992, it all came together. Mansell won the first five races of the season and won nine of sixteen races for the entire season on his way to his only World Championship.

But for a combination of several different reasons, Mansell’s relationship with Williams went south. With Michael Andretti joining McLaren in Formula One in 1993, that meant that a top seat at Newman/Haas was open. Mansell “retired” from Formula One and took Michael’s ride at Newman/Haas.

Mansell dominated immediately, he won the pole and the race in his first outing with his new team and series at Surfers Paradise in Australia. At Phoenix, Mansell made an IndyCar rookie mistake in practice – he turned right on an oval. The result was a badly injured back that would keep him out of his first oval race and would haunt him into the month of May.

Had it not been for his inexperience at re-starts at Indianapolis, Mansell could have won the 1993 Indianapolis 500. Still he finished third and went on to win a total of five races in his first IndyCar season and won the championship. With the F1 season still going on after the season finale; for a few weeks – Mansell held the F1 title and the IndyCar title at the same time.

As good a driver as Mansell was on the track, he had a well-earned reputation for being a prima-donna off the track. Mansell was very temperamental and had a well-documented history for not getting along with teammates and team-owners. That trait re-surfaced in 1994.

Being saddled with the sluggish Lola T9400 didn’t help, but his relationship with teammate Mario Andretti had deteriorated beyond the breaking point. His relationship with his team was not much better. The defending IndyCar champion did not win a race in 1994 and finished eighth. Before season’s end, it was a foregone conclusion that the moody Mansell would not be back in the IndyCar paddock in 1995. He wasn’t.

But there is no denying all of the newfound attention that Mansell brought to the CART PPG IndyCar World Series. You may have read the post from guest-blogger Matthew Lawrenson last month. He was a young Brit in 1993, when he first learned of IndyCar. CART races were suddenly being carried in the UK so that they could follow their countryman Mansell as he raced in this strange new series across the pond that raced on road and street races as well as ovals.

Like many overseas, Lawrenson became a fan of American Open-Wheel Racing and has remained one ever since. His story is not unusual. But that was a generation ago. It’s hard to believe that Nigel Mansell won his IndyCar Championship twenty-five years ago. An entire generation of IndyCar and Formula One drivers and fans have come and gone.

For perspective, when Mansell almost won the 1993 Indianapolis 500; it was won by Emerson Fittipaldi. Fittipaldi’s grandson, Pietro Fittipaldi, is now racing in IndyCar.

Over the years, many in Europe have paid less attention to IndyCar. That may be about to change.

Fernando Alonso shares a similar early career trajectory with Mansell. Alonso started his Formula One career in 2001, driving for Minardi, with predictable dismal results. In 2003, he moved to Renault (which I still call Benetton, although someone called me out for doing that a couple of years ago). He immediately found success, winning in his first season that produced a sixth-place finish in the points. In 2004, he finished fourth.

But in 2005 and 2006, Alonso won two consecutive Formula One championships. He won fourteen races in a two season span, before jumping to McLaren in 2007 when he finished third in the championship

The biggest difference between the two careers? Mansell was thirty-nine when he won his first championship and Alonso was twenty-four. Mansell was already driving fulltime in Formula One when Alonso was born, although their respective F1 careers just missed each other by five seasons.

Bu there are other differences. Although Alonso’s championships came early in his career, his success was sustained much longer throughout his career. Alonso has finished second in the championship three times and third once, since his championships in 2005-06. After a year with McLaren, he went back to Renault and then to Ferrari before moving back to McLaren in 2015. He has won races for every team he has driven for – including McLaren in 2007 – but this stint with McLaren since 2015 has been dreadful.

Some would look at the results and figure that Alonso has grown too old. But those that know better say it’s the car.

Alonso is highly regarded and is considered by most F1 aficionados to be a much better driver than Mansell – and far more likeable. When he decided to forego the Grand Prix of Monaco in order to race in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, it raised eyebrows around the globe. His success in qualifying drew the attention of Louis Hamilton, who concluded that IndyCar drivers are no good if a first-timer from Formula One can show up and be competitive.

Since May of 2017, when a blown Honda engine may have been the only thing preventing him from winning – Alonso has always praised IndyCar and the IndyCar drivers. He knows that if he comes over fulltime next season (and that is still a big “if”), it will not be easy.

From all indications, Alonso enjoyed his test at Barber this past Wednesday. Those closest to him insist that he still has not made up his mind for next season. Many IndyCar fans are going under the assumption that he will be here fulltime next season. I’m still not so sure.

Bt if Fernando Alonso comes, I now agree with Michael Andretti – it will have the same impact, maybe even bigger, of Mansell coming twenty-five years ago. I think Alonso is more popular than Mansell ever was, and I think most Formula One fans consider Alonso to be one of the top drivers in the history of the sport – despite his most recent tenure with McLaren.

So as the “Fred Watch” continues, I think Alonso coming over here will have a tremendous world-wide impact on the Verizon IndyCar Series (or whatever it will be called next season). Apparently, Mark Miles does too. He has put the International TV Rights negotiations on hold, until Alonso makes up his mind. Smart man.

George Phillips

Please Note:  As I’ve been known to do on this weekend, I am going to take a short break. Why? To the chagrin of my wife Susan, I plan on being glued to the TV all weekend watching College Football on Saturday and the kickoff to the NFL season on Sunday. Family commitments kept me away from football over Labor Day, so I am devoting all weekend to football – my other favorite sport. Therefore, there will be no post here on Monday Sep 10, but I will return here on Wednesday Sep 12. Have a nice weekend. – GP

9 Responses to “The Alonso Factor”

  1. M.Lawrenson Says:

    The main difference, as I see it, will be in the visibility of IndyCar to Alonso’s legion of European fans. When Mansell went over back in 93, there was virtually no way of seeing CART on TV in Europe. There wasn’t much of an internet back then, satellite TV was in its infancy, and none of the European terrestrial channels would have shown American racing back then. CART may have been shown on something obscure like Eurosport in 1993, but I for one wasn’t kitted up that well at 17.

    Had there been some way for us to see Mansell’s American Adventure, it would have been BIG in the UK at least. People often forget how beloved Nige was to the casual racing fan back then. For people my age, the defining racing memory of the 80s is Mansell crashing in the 1986 Australian GP, both his left rear tyre and his Championship blown. If there would have been a reasonable way to see CART races in the UK, we would have done it. As it was, we had to live with 30 second clips of Mansell’s wins on the Monday news shows.

    A quarter of a century later, we have cable, satellite, internet streaming services (both licit and otherwise) so all those who want to see Fred at places like St. Pete, Toronto and Mid-Ohio can do so with a few button pushes from their armchairs. How many will do so, well, I presume Mark Miles and will be working out the projected numbers and their commeasurate price.

    Meanwhile, I’ll continue booking my seat at the sports bar on Sunday evenings. I’ve made sure I’ve got March 10th off work, so if Fred is there in Florida, I’ll be watching him from England.

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I have no doubt it would be a big deal. I do sim racing with people from all over the world and when he came here in 2017 almost all of them were chattering about it. To my surprise, most of them knew very little about IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500 but they became very interested in seeing him give it a go, they enjoyed what they saw and most of them still follow IndyCar regularly. I don’t think he moved the needle much over here but he pegged it internationally.

  3. Be sure you keep up on all the NFL rule changes, or you won’t be able to know everything that’s going on. Once a big NFL fan, I’m done with it. For a lot of reasons. But perhaps the biggest is all the rule changes over the years, which have totally change the game.

  4. Have a great football weekend, George! I tried watching last night’s season opener. what a yawner. Am looking forward to the Rams and Raiders just for old time sake.

    BTW, I think Fernando coming over will be great for the series, even if he focuses only on the 500. I’d like to see him win the triple crown. I was glued to the PC when he tested for the 500 last year. Oops, I forgot to check if his test this week was streamed.

  5. Let’s be honest here how much of an impact did he have when he raced at Indy last year. It got us hardcore fans excited but I think we have reached a point where nothing is ever going to move the needle one way or another in Indycar and suddenly bring tons of new fans. That day has passed.

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      Stateside, not much of an impact because as you say that ship has sailed and people here don’t really care about cars, let alone racing them. However he did make a big impact internationally, I know petrolheads from all corners of the world and they were all very interested in watching him even though most had never watched any IndyCar before. I don’t think we can do anything to make people in this country care but if we can get the rest of the world fired up for IndyCar that’s still a good thing I think.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I dunno, I suspect Nigel Mansell’s two year run at Newman-Haas is the only reason that any K-Marts at all are still open in the country. I’d like to see Alonso postpone the end of such a miserable retailer…

  7. You were wise to watch Sunday night football in Mr. Rogers neighborhood last night as Aaron Rogers did a miracle comeback on one good leg to beat da Bears as he has done so many times.
    Despite the rain, the dirt track race at IMS was a rousing success. So if we can get Alonso on dirt next year, then I will get excited.

  8. Can you say Barichello boys and girls? Ultimately foreign drivers will be judged here not so much by their impact on the popularity of IndyCar, but rather by their skill set and their ability to give a good Robin Miller video interview-brother.

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