A big deal: Why Fernando Alonso's Indy 500 is important for McLaren

Alonso: Every day is a new lesson (1:53)

Fernando Alonso reveals what he's learning from his IndyCar practice sessions and how different it is to Formula 1. (1:53)

"Oh s---!"

That was Zak Brown's initial reaction when his star driver Fernando Alonso told him he wanted to race the Indy 500 this year. Not in five years once he'd retired from Formula One, not next year to give Brown the required thinking time. This year.

The idea was first floated as a joke between friends ahead of the start of the F1 season, but by the opening race in Australia Alonso was ready to make it a reality. With less than two months to go before the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, he let Brown know he was serious and from that moment onward there was no backing down.

"At that point I knew I'd opened the door," McLaren's executive director told ESPN last weekend. "When it was clear he was interested it's not like I could tell him no.

"When we started joking about it I was serious, but I didn't think 2017 -- I was serious about the future. But it was Fernando who pushed for doing it this year and immediately your mind goes into deal-making mode. You think 'if I do this and do that and this domino falls here, then it could happen'.

"It was then that I thought it was not going to be easy, but that it was possibly doable."

The anatomy of a deal

If there's one person capable of making a deal happen in motor racing, it's Zak Brown. With experience on both sides of the Atlantic and motorsport connections across the globe, Brown's deals in F1 over the past ten years are only second to Bernie Ecclestone's. But by taking Brown up on the Indianapolis idea, Alonso had nudged the first domino while the rest were still lying flat in the box. It was now up to Brown to make sure the others were all in place before that first domino fell flat on its face.

"The first thing I needed to do was get permission from the [McLaren] executive committee, my bosses. So I remember that moment vividly, Jonathan [Neale, McLaren COO] and I had lunch with Sheikh Mohammed [bin Essa Al Khalifa, McLaren co-owner] and I joked with him because there was a chance he was going to go nuts! But Sheikh Mohammed immediately thought it was a great idea.

"So once I got the blessing from the executive committee, I immediately looked at whether I could pull this thing off. I called Mark Miles [IndyCar CEO] because I was very sensitive to any leakage, especially as I didn't think it was probable. The last thing I wanted was McLaren and Fernando rumours circulating at a time when we have got enough rumours circulating as it was!"

McLaren's F1 engine manufacturer Honda was another key player to get on board and Brown suggested Alonso broach the subject himself. It was a masterstroke and in no time at all the necessary backing was in place to tackle the final hurdle: finding a car.

Brown says three teams were possibilities but Andretti Autosport was top of the list, and with little over a month before the opening practice day at Indianapolis, a deal was reached for Stefan Wilson to give up his drive -- "He did a great thing for the sport," says Brown. With Alonso, the McLaren executive committee, Honda and an IndyCar team all on board, a joke a few weeks earlier was now on the verge of becoming a reality.

"The hard part was keeping it quiet, which was a little bit easier because it came together so quickly," Brown adds. "If you've got a six month top-secret project then forget it, but this thing came together quickly. Even when I was making enquiries, even I didn't think there was a high likelihood. So from start to finish of making it happen was a couple of weeks. It was exciting because we knew it was going to be huge news, but then to be able to keep it quiet until the announcement as well. The amount of emails I got from people thinking it was April fool's day was great!"

What's in it for McLaren?

Ever since the first pre-season test of 2017, the narrative of McLaren's year has been overwhelmingly negative. Now in its third season with Honda as its engine supplier, the team's performance has got worse rather than better and the cracks in the relationship are deepening -- potentially beyond repair.

With McLaren's ongoing engine crisis reaching new depths each race weekend, Alonso's presence at the Indy 500 has provided a welcome distraction. For the month of May, McLaren has had a positive news story to tell and one that -- regardless of Alonso's performance on May 28 -- has given the team and its beleaguered engine partner some much-needed breathing space.

"If we stay on our current trajectory, what news are we going to be making in Monaco? Probably not much, and not great news at least," Brown adds. "Now we have a reason for McLaren to be in the spotlight hopefully for the right reasons.

"We have got this great Indianapolis 500 project I'd like to see happen on a regular basis [in future years] but we were able to pull it forward [to this year]. The McLaren brand should be in different forms of motorsport with its history. So everyone wins and there's no bad. McLaren is happy, our employees are happy, Fernando is happy, Honda is happy, Jenson is happy, the fans are happy, it's great for Formula One, it's great for IndyCar.

"It's pretty hard to come up with something these days where everyone is happy."

There could be long-term benefits, too. After four years without a title sponsor, Brown has made it his goal to bring a big name to the team by the start of 2018. The hype around the Indy 500 is proof that McLaren still has significant brand power and Brown believes it could open doors for future partnerships.

"Yes, because North America is important to most companies and while Formula One is growing there and will continue to grow, the Indianapolis 500 is big. So in our portfolio of opportunities for marketing partners, it also separates us from other Formula One teams, gives us North America in a bigger and more impactful way than just one race in the States and so it helps broaden and deepen our offerings because you have some partners that will want to be bigger on the IndyCar and some on F1. So it complements our overall racing opportunities."

Will Indy help keep Alonso at McLaren?

Of all McLaren's assets, Fernando Alonso remains one of its strongest. Aside from Lewis Hamilton, there is no other Formula One driver who could create the same volume of headlines by taking part in the Indy 500. And McLaren knows it.

His contract with the team is up at the end of the year and he's made clear that he will show no allegiance to a struggling McLaren if he is offered a winning car elsewhere. But after rumours of an Alonso exit even sooner than that, the Indy 500 has helped ease tensions.

"He's in as good a place as you can expect for a Formula One world champion who did one lap in the morning practice session of his home race," Brown says, referencing the catastrophic failure of Alonso's Honda engine on his first lap out of the pits at the Spanish Grand Prix. "He just wants to go racing. I think people overcomplicate how he thinks. He just wants to race and he just wants to win.

"Indianapolis has given him something to look forward to, it's been a nice distraction mentally, but I don't think it's been any distraction to what he's doing in the race car. When he's in an F1 car, he thinks about Formula One, but when he wakes up each morning, yeah, I think he's excited to be doing the Indy 500 and a little less excited to wake up and race at the Spanish Grand Prix.

"That's not because he's not excited about the Spanish Grand Prix, it's because he knows he's not going to run at the front. It's been a few years since he's run at the front and I think he wakes up wanting to show the world that he's fast. I don't think anyone doubts that, but running around for two and half years with a best result of fifth is nothing for someone like Fernando Alonso to wake up and get excited about. So it's a new challenge."

And if McLaren can offer him a winning car (or at least a car on a par with Alonso's other options for 2018), Brown thinks the Indy 500 experience could be a deal breaker.

"I think if all things are equal he would chose to stay at McLaren because of the environment we have provided. I think we would win the tie-breaker from his loyalty to us and the fact that we are racers.

"Fernando wasn't the only person to make a brave decision to go to Indianapolis, McLaren made a brave decision to go to Indianapolis. So we are in sync with each other on that and we just want to go racing and win races.

"So if we can give him a winning car and somebody else is offering a winning car, we win the tie-breaker."