Fernando Alonso didn’t win the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, but for virtually the entire month of May, you’d have been forgiven for thinking he was the only driver in the race.
The Spaniard’s Brickyard debut was accompanied by near blanket coverage of his every move from the motorsport media and unprecedented levels of interest from the mainstream sectors (US included) that would previously have asked “Indy what?”
Yes, it helps that he’s a handsome, multi-lingual and charismatic double World Champion who embraced and respected the traditions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the sheer scale of Alonso-mania was only possible thanks to a communications strategy perfectly planned and executed with Zak Brown pulling the strings in the background.
The McLaren Honda Executive Director needed a brainwave. Eighteen months of bad press for his team due to underwhelming performances and sometimes explosive public criticism from Alonso meant a ‘good news’ story was essential. Time to indulge the marketing nous he’d put to good use in creating and growing his $76million Just Marketing Inc empire between 1995 and its sale in 2013.
His idea, that Alonso’s desire to compete at Indy could be indulged this year – and at the expense of his seat at F1’s ‘jewel in the crown’ Monaco Grand Prix too – was genius and not something former McLaren Group Chairman Ron Dennis would ever have condoned.
Since the deal was announced on April 2, barely a day has gone by without some kind of Alonso-related story being published in the media. A week since the race, they’re still talking about him.
Yes, there was the initial flurry of announcement excitement, but it was built upon with a trip to the IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park in April and one of the most packed press conferences for a series event away from IMS in its history.
Keeping the spotlight on Alonso
The carefully constructed news cycle kept spinning; a new spike appearing every time a potential drop in momentum was detected.
A re-imagining of the orange livery in which Johnny Rutherford won the 1976 ‘500 in a McLaren M16E was unveiled to massive fan approval, and then Rutherford himself was appointed as an ambassador; two PR masterstrokes.
And then came the time to hit the track. And how! Brown convinced IndyCar to broadcast Alonso’s Rookie Orientation Programme (the Indy 500 driving test) live and free globally on the series YouTube channel with embeds and shares available to all media. Cue a staggering 1.6million fans (mostly non-US) viewing during the six-hour stream.
A superbly-constructed calendar of track and interview video content, McLaren Indy history and, of course, Alonso’s incredible performance to qualify on the second row (admittedly easier in an Andretti Autosport Dallara-Honda than anything else based on recent Indy form) simply heightened the excitement.
As if to prove how crazy the news cycle had become, a four-second video of Fernando skateboarding down Victory Lane on a random practice day was viewed more than 400,000 times in 48 hours on the McLaren Facebook page alone as the #AlonsoSkatesIndy hashtag went berserk.
Packed press room
The IMS press office reported attendance by non-US media was up 170 on their average for the past decade (even taking into account a spike for last year’s 100th running) while in the UK alone the event was the lead story on the BBC Sport home page and national race broadcaster BT Sport published a peak 203k viewing figure – 975 per cent increase on a year ago. The worldwide figures make for interesting reading too.
And then, to cap it all off, he ran inside the top five for most of the event and – at the point at which he retired with mechanical failure with just 20 of 200 laps to run – had recorded the fastest average lap speed of any driver.
Even his naming as Rookie of the Year has created controversy, with fellow first-timer Ed Jones finishing third overall, and several drivers having their say about the judging process, just further elongating the news cycle.
And how did McLaren get on in Monaco without him? Nope; we can’t remember either. And we won’t remember come the end of the season, or in 10 or 20 years time either. All we’ll recall of Fernando Alonso’s 2017 is of how he wowed IndyCar with a stunning debut. Conclusive proof that if you think outside the box and take a calculated gamble, the results can be astonishing.
Clever bloke, that Zak Brown.
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