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Fernando Alonso's bittersweet Indy 500 adds to legend of his career

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Saunders: Alonso leaves with a new fan base (1:44)

ESPN's Nate Saunders assesses Fernando Alonso's performance in his first Indianapolis 500 and the two-time Formula One champion's future after the current season. (1:44)

The legend of Fernando Alonso continues to grow -- in more ways than one.

After his rookie Indy 500, the two-time world champion leaves with the U.S. with a bolstered fanbase west of the Atlantic and an even stronger reputation than he had before announcing his participation at the Brickyard. From the first moment he stepped in the orange No.29 car Alonso looked at home, running strongly in practice and qualifying fifth. But it was in the race he was supposed to struggle, with pit-stops and restarts apparently set to test the McLaren driver's lack of experience when it mattered.

As it turned out, Alonso looked every part the oval racer. There were fleeting moments he drove like a rookie, losing four positions in the opening two laps and being caught out during one of the restarts later in the race, but for over 150 laps of the race Alonso was a contender for the Borg-Warner trophy. We shouldn't have expected any less from a man chasing the Triple Crown, an achievement he thinks will solidify a reputation as the most "complete" driver of the modern era, a title many have already ascribed to him.

Alonsomania was a very real thing for the two weeks of build-up and it was not hype for the sake of hype. Rivals marvelled at how quickly he'd got up to speed, with several observers in the Indianapolis paddock commenting that he looked more at ease after seven days than some of his rivals did on their third or fourth visits to the Brickyard. A win would have elevated his reputation into the stratosphere.

Honda's engine failure prematurely stopped the story of the year as it neared its final act, leaving us and Alonso to wonder what might have been in those final 20 laps -- he had been right behind eventual winner Takuma Sato (and on a near-identical strategy) when the smoke started pouring from his engine.

engine failure

"It's a shame," Alonso told ESPN's Dr Larry Punch after the race. "I think I deserved to finish the race, at least. Who knows where we could have finished?"

That it was a Honda engine failure that ended his bid was a painful irony not lost on anyone with any understanding of what led to Alonso's participation in the first place. It is important to differentiate between Honda's F1 and IndyCar programmes -- they are fundamentally different projects and engines -- but the failings of the Japanese manufacturer will forever be associated with the later years of Alonso's career unless it can do the unthinkable and deliver him a championship-winning F1 car before he retires (just convincing him to stay in 2018 seems difficult enough).

Honda ended the race with one perfect story, a Japanese driver winning in one of its own cars, but the stature and fame of Alonso means its association with his repeated frustrations will resonate just as much as Sato's victory in the motorsport world and beyond. What was supposed to be a positive story for McLaren and Honda's relationship finished on a sour note, one which Formula One boss Zak Brown seemed genuinely miffed by in the immediate aftermath of the race.

"Who knows where we could have finished?" is an apt question for it all to end on for Alonso. The same question has been asked at various points through his post-2007 career, years littered with near-misses the what-might-have-been tales. As good a PR victory as this was for Alonso -- a man who endeared himself to U.S. fans with his sharp wit, happy-go-lucky charm and genuine respect and excitement for the most famous race in the world -- he still left empty-handed.

He had downplayed expectations from the beginning and will have the chance to tackle the Indy 500 again one day but having a genuine shot of winning that race, something Alonso had in those closing stages, is a rare thing whoever the driver. His career remains unfulfilled and his potential for multiple success is yet to be realised.

Now the McLaren man will return to the F1 paddock for the Canadian Grand Prix. It is unlikely to be a happy homecoming to his day job. McLaren's fortunes are improving but Honda will dictate its competitiveness between now until the summer break. Until then, Alonso can brace himself for months of speculation about his future and endless hypotheses about landing spots for 2018. For all the good his performances at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May have been for his reputation, they have not changed the fact Alonso is in a dire situation in F1, with his chances of being in a title-winning car next year looking slim to none.

Alonso's Indy adventure ended with laughs and smiles as he pulled out a small carton of milk and started drinking at the end of his post-race press conference, keeping up the theme of his 14 days spent in the United States since the Spanish Grand Prix. But his future has never seemed more unclear. While Alonso wants to win a third world championship, a logical path to that outcome is hard to see. As good as the story was for motor racing, IndyCar and McLaren, it is sad that Alonso's best chance of winning a race in the last three years came at a one-off appearance in a different series. Even more unfortunately, it could be a while until he gets that close again.