MONTMELO, Spain – The 2019 Formula One season got underway seriously at the Barcelona-Catalunya track in Montmelo, northeast Spain, on Wednesday with flat-out testing that saw Sebastian Vettel crash Ferrari’s promising new race car and McLaren announce that Fernando Alonso has not quite retired.
Alonso said at the end of last year that he had retired, aged 37, but McLaren has now said the two-time Formula One World Champion is to drive at selected F1 tests to promote the development of the team’s new MCL34 race car, having also become an ambassador for McLaren Racing.
“Becoming a McLaren ambassador is a true honor,” said Alonso, who was in Barcelona for the preseason testing.
“It is a special team, and despite the challenges we have endured recently, it remains so,” Alonso said. “I said before I stopped racing in Formula 1 last year that I see myself with McLaren for a long time to come, so I am delighted at this new role and the ability to stay closely involved with the team I feel is my spiritual home.”
However, the most eye-catching action happened on the track at Turn 3 on Wednesday when four-time world champion Vettel slid off the track at speed and smashed into the crash barriers in early testing.
The 31-year-old German driver emerged unhurt from the collision, the team said, but the impact had been strong enough to trigger the Ferrari’s in-car G-force sensor, meaning the driver had to be taken to the track’s medical center.
Vettel was later declared physically fit but his practice session was cut short because his car needed to be rebuilt.
Experts who had seen the new Ferrari in action had all said it was looking set to be the fastest machine in F1 at least in the early part of the season.
Now, Ferrari mechanics will have to work hard to get the car back in shape to resume much-needed testing.
The German driver had been on good form prior to the crash, clocking up the second-fastest time during 40 laps of flat-out testing.
Ferrari said “a mechanical problem” had caused the accident but declined to reveal more details.
Alonso’s new role will see him return selectively from retirement to get behind the wheel of this year’s car and 2020’s MCL35 in order to help in their development.
McLaren also said Alonso would be available to advise its current driver line-up of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris.
The Spaniard is also scheduled to drive for McLaren for a second attempt at the Indianapolis 500 in a bid to become only the second racer in history, after the legendary Graham Hill, to attain motorsport’s so-called Triple Crown of winning the Formula 1 world championship, the Le Mans 24 Hours and also the Indianapolis oval racing classic.
“We have the Indianapolis 500 in May of course, which I am looking forward to immensely, but this is just the beginning of many things we can do together,” Alonso said. “I am particularly passionate about nurturing young talent, whether that’s with my own team or helping the new generation of Formula 1 drivers at McLaren unlock their true potential,” he added about giving advice to the new line-up.
Zak Brown, McLaren Racing’s Chief Executive Officer, described Alonso as being part of the McLaren family.
“He has set his place in the team’s history and continues to write his chapter of the McLaren story, so it is entirely appropriate that we formalize his status as a McLaren ambassador, joining another double champion, Mika Hakkinen,” Brown said.
He said that anyone with Alonso’s experience and ability was of great value in helping develop race cars, adding that the decision to retain him as part of the team would also likely be popular with fans.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz posted a fast time of one minute, 17.144 seconds in early pre-season testing, but then his car ground to a halt on track.
The fault was not yet diagnosed, Formula One said in a statement, but it had been forced to red flag the practice session as it had also done when Max Verstappen, driving his Red Bull, had to be recovered from the end of pit lane.