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Why is Fernando Alonso testing for McLaren again in 2019?

MONTMELO, Spain -- A random outbreak of the Fernando Alonso Show never seems far away when you're near McLaren in the Formula One paddock. It only took until the sixth day of this year's preseason for it to ramp up again at the two-time world champion's home circuit.

Having stepped away from an F1 racing role for 2019, the Spaniard was notably absent from the team's launch of the MCL34 and the opening week of testing. He has now been unveiled as an ambassador for the team and is slated for an official test of the car at some point in 2019. That announcement followed his return to the F1 paddock on Tuesday, when he gleefully walked up and down the paddock among throngs of fans before going trackside with replacement and countryman Carlos Sainz and McLaren CEO Zak Brown.

A test of the MCL34 was expected but not confirmed until Wednesday, although a date is unspecified. Brown ruled out an appearance in the opening Friday practice session of any of the 21 race weekends this year, meaning one of the two in-seasons tests (to be held in Bahrain and Spain) is the most likely moment for his appearance in the car.

But it won't be his most significant on-track appearance this year -- far from it, in fact. He still has the small matter of the World Endurance Championship title (the premier category of sportscar racing) to clinch with his Toyota team, in a season which culminates in June's Le Mans 24 Hours race that he will now enter as a defending champion. The win in that event last year set up what could be the biggest race of his recent career when he competes in his second Indy 500 in May, the final piece of the Triple Crown he covets. He will contest that race in a McLaren entry, as he did as a rookie in 2017.

Alonso's pursuit of that trio of wins at Monaco, Le Mans and Indianapolis was what first turned his head to the prospect of life away from F1's 21-race season two years ago. A win at the famous oval race would make him only the second man in history -- after Graham Hill completed his own trio in 1972 -- to achieve it. Love him or loathe him, it would be a seriously impressive achievement. And he's lost none of his self-belief in his short time away from F1.

"At the moment I feel at the peak of my career," Alonso said on Wednesday. "So probably being at home is a waste of time and possibilities for everyone. Firstly, for me I am doing different iconic races now because I feel I am in the best moment of driving of my career so I hope to win as many races as I can. I keep involved in F1 life, just in case..."

So, is Alonso coming back to F1?

That 'just in case' underpins all of this. Some have confused Alonso's F1 departure with a loss of motivation to claim the third world championship he should have won a decade ago. As evidenced by his recent races away from F1 -- on top of WEC and Indy, he has twice done the Daytona 24 Hours and is being actively courted by numerous other series for 2019 appearances -- he has lost none of his desire to keep racing. Alonso is a competitive animal.

When asked if he could foresee himself racing into his 60s like Mario Andretti, a man Alonso hopes to emulate with success in F1 and at the Brickyard, he said: "No, definitely not at 60, but it is true that at the same time I am probably stronger than ever at 37 physically, mentally, and the background that I have on different categories and different driving styles. So I feel very good now and very competitive in any car I jump in.

"I will keep going for a couple of years, select what races that can make an impact on my career, race those, and as I said if one day Formula One again arrives at the moment where I can be competitive and I can win then I cannot be relaxed at home in that moment. I need to keep updated. The way to do that at the moment is to be involved somehow."

The general belief in the paddock, which existed even before Alonso's ambassadorial role was confirmed, is that he has an F1 seat with McLaren waiting for him whenever he wants it. Carlos Sainz's two-year deal and the elevation of Lando Norris, Brown's first recruit to the junior academy, suggests that is not going to happen in the short term. The regulation change in 2021, offering the chance for McLaren to capitalise on any radical change in the pecking order, seems the most likely moment for that to happen.

With Brown also harbouring ambitions of entering McLaren into WEC in time for that series' 2020-21 season, the American refused to comment on whether a guaranteed F1 seat would be Alonso's at the snap of a finger.

"We haven't discussed [a return to F1]," Brown said. "So we will cross any bridge when we come to it but we've got our two drivers and we are very happy with them.

"McLaren has aspirations in a variety of motorsport so to have Fernando's talent and experience inside the McLaren camp is a great part of our performance recovery that we are on.

"I've tried to get the best talent: Andreas Seidl, James Key, Pat Fry, so to have Fernando as part of our development programme I think is a very important piece of the puzzle to getting us to be competitive again."

Whatever the guarantees are and are not, Alonso sees the benefit of keeping himself closely integrated with McLaren's F1 operation.

"The cars are very similar to last year, not much has changed," he said. "It's not that the tyres have a different manufacturer or the engine changed dramatically in the rules or anything like that. So, if I'm testing sometimes OK, if I'm doing simulators OK, but I think the most important is to be updated on the rules, on these tyres, how they behave, these five compounds, what will be the strategies on races.

"Things that are very simple but you know, to keep updated on everything it's probably the biggest thing for a driver that is not racing that season."