Flash-bang! Everyone look the other way

Magicians often use diversion to direct the attention of an audience away from wherever they want to do something and towards something irrelevant. One wonders whether this is one of those moments in F1.

In recent days there has been a lot of talk about Honda’s disastrous F1 programme and how they intend to fix the problem and now, suddenly out of the blue, comes the announcement that the team is allowing Fernando Alonso to go to the United States to race in the Indy 500, missing the Monaco Grand Prix, the biggest race of the F1 season.

OK, so Alonso is fed up with F1 at the moment because his engine is not very good and he has an ambition to race at Indianapolis, but is this really all there is to the story – or is there another flash-bang coming? McLaren’s Zak Brown is a big picture guy and letting Alonso go may simply be the way to cheer the Spaniard up, but you can be sure that Brown will not waste the free seat at Monaco. One can imagine that a driver swap could be a good way to create interest in both championships. It would certainly be an idea that would be embraced by the Formula One group as it seeks to promote Formula 1 in the United States.

A McLaren return to Indy after 38 years, albeit with a Dallara-Honda, driven by Fernando Alonso is a good story and will do much to sweep away all the negativity that has been floating around the McLaren-Honda situation for the last few weeks. Alonso’s car will be run by Andretti Autosport, which already has five other entries planned, driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alex Rossi, Takuma Sato and rookie Jack Harvey. The team will need to pick up more staff if it intends to run them all. But then, maybe one of them will stand down and go to Monaco instead…

The obvious choice as the Alonso replacement would be Jenson Button, the team’s reserve driver, but does Jenson really want to come back to do just one race? Or perhaps the reserve driver gig was always a cosmetic deal and JB is enjoying his retirement and not really keen on a one-off appearance that offers no real chance of winning the race. If it did, Alonso wouldn’t be going to America…

So perhaps we are going to see another announcement to get interest going in Monaco. And what better way than having an American star standing in for Alonso. The problem with this is that the Andretti drivers have only one superlicence between them: this belongs to last year’s Indy 500 winner Alex Rossi. He hasn’t raced in F1 at Monaco, but he has taken part in nine races in the Renault World Series and in GP2, so he knows the track. This would be a driver swap that both F1 and Indy would probably be happy to see, as it would promote both events. Having said that Alexander has a crack at winning a second 500 and so he might think staying in the US was a better chance, despite the fact that he still harbours F1 ambitions. We will have to see, but there is a McLaren press conference in a few hours in Bahrain and that may cast some light on the plans.

McLaren has a very limited number of choices. There are only about 40 drivers who are qualified for superlicences in 2017 and most of them are not at all suitable for F1. Twenty-one of them are F1 drivers (if one includes Pascal Wehrlein and Antonio Giovinazzi). There are some test drivers, such as Sergey Sirotkin and Pierre Gasly and McLaren’s Young Driver Nyck de Vries, but he does not seem to be a likely choice at the moment. There are some Formula E drivers and a string of sports car stars, plus the retired Mark Webber.

There are six Indycar drivers on the list: four Penske drivers: Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon. He’s a Honda driver, but it is unlikely that Ganassi would let him wander off, as he is after a third Indy 500 win. That leaves Rossi.

It is fairly likely that whoever drives the McLaren at Monaco will appear in a McLaren next week in the Bahrain test…