The irrepressible Fernando Alonso’s farewell to Formula One at the end of last season may not have been the final curtain.
McLaren are testing in Barcelona and they revealed on Wednesday that the 37-year-old will now be an ambassador for the team and test their F1 cars over the next two years. Having the two-times world champion in their set-up is a boon while they rebuild with two far less experienced drivers but crucially it also ensures the Spaniard remains at the heart of McLaren and keeps his hand in should he make a return to F1 in 2021.
Alonso called it a day last year after 17 years in F1, his enthusiasm for racing sapped by four years of underperformance from McLaren. But despite his vocal criticism of Honda’s power unit during three of those four years, his relationship with the team remained strong.
The team are fully backing his shot at Indy. He will race for McLaren when they enter a works team at the Brickyard in May. This year he already has a win at the Daytona 24 under his belt and is leading the world endurance championship, which is building to its climax at Le Mans in June.
Alonso’s calendar is busy but he will join McLaren’s other double world champion, Mika Häkkinen, as a team ambassador.
“McLaren is a special team,” Alonso said. “Despite the challenges we have endured recently, it remains so. I said before I stopped racing in Formula One last year that I see myself with McLaren for a long time to come, so I am delighted at this new role.”
He will also be advising engineers and drivers, and the commercial value of a driver of his stature and popularity was clearly not lost on the team.
Speaking after the announcement Alonso, who has never ruled out a return, said: “If one day Formula One again arrives at the moment when I can be competitive, and I can eventually be winning, I cannot be relaxed at home in that moment. I need to keep updated and the best way is to be involved somehow.”
Zak Brown, McLaren’s chief executive, has openly targeted 2021 – when the regulations change and, he is hoping, a financial levelling of the playing field will occur – as the date when the team may hope to be able to compete with the top three again. Alonso clearly believes he would be ready to climb back in if they have the machinery.
“I feel at the peak of my career,” he said. “So probably being at home is a waste of time and possibilities for everyone. I’m doing different, iconic races now. I feel in the best moment of my driving career, so I hope to win as many races as I can. I [will] also stay involved in F1 life, just in case.
“I’m stronger than ever now, at 37, physically, mentally, and the background that you have in different categories and different driving styles. So I feel very good now, very competitive in any car that I jump in.”
Certainly he will be buoyed by McLaren’s current form. Reading anything into testing times is a dangerous game but with Lando Norris the quickest driver on Tuesday and Carlos Sainz on top of the timesheets on Wednesday, McLaren have enjoyed their best pre-season in five years. The plan to be on a strong upward curve by 2021 is at least starting from the right place.
Alonso also wants to nurture and mentor McLaren’s young drivers. For Norris, having Alonso in his corner in his debut year could be invaluable.
Norris, Sainz, engineers and designers have a prized asset in Alonso. He in turn described the team as his “spiritual home” – one that is now the potential stage for a dramatic F1 encore.