The S&G has infinite enthusiasm for the Indianapolis 500 and its admiration for Fernando Alonso is similarly effusive – your scribe interviewed him in Minardi overalls a lifetime ago, and he was later very helpful on a book project – so perhaps a few more S&G stories might have been expected during the past month.
In fact, the whole circus that sprang up around Alonso’s mission to Indy rather precluded writing about it. The spirits of Jimmy Murphy, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and all the other transatlantic travellers have been endlessly summoned, so it was better to watch the rodeo and provide something from the S&G’s perspective when the dust settled: so here it is.
Of all the apparitions from motor sport’s past who may have appeared around the Alonso 500 it was James Gordon Bennett Jr. who most often sprang to mind. For it was he, as the owner of the New York Herald, who lavished funds upon a race from Paris to Lyon for the cream of motor manufacturers from Europe and the USA.
Starting in 1900, the three fastest cars from each competing nation would be entered for the Gordon Bennett Cup – with Gordon Bennett’s newspaper getting all the exclusives throughout the build-up and raceday.
This was enormous news – a circulation blockbuster.
For nearly a decade, motor racing had whipped the public’s imagination into a frenzy of daredevils breaking new technological boundaries. By insisting that the Gordon Bennett Cup cars were painted in national racing colours, the press magnate’s race also tapped in to the zeal and fervour which would ultimately fuel World War 1.
This was no longer a contest between athletes or even motor cars, but rather a measure of the virility and might of the world’s proudest nations. The 1900 race saw competing cars line up painted blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white for Germany, and red for the USA. Fernand Charon crossed the line in Lyon first on a Panhard, to a volcanic roar of approval across la République.
In 1901 the French had the race to themselves and a Panhard headed the charge from Paris to Rouen. In 1902 the Gordon Bennett Cup moved from France to Austria and the British challenged the French with some lightweight, less powerful cars from Wolselely and Napier – with Selwyn Edge taking the honours for Napier.
On that occasion the British cars had been painted red, but with the return of all nations for the 1903 race this meant that a permanent colour needed to be ascribed to British motor racing. In the end green was chosen, as a tribute to the race’s hosts in Ireland (then a part of the United Kingdom). It was a white Mercedes driven by Camille Jenatzy that won, however.
French honour was restored by victory on German soil in 1904. As a result the 1905 race moved back to France where, with more motor manufacturers than anyone else, the hosts chafed at being pegged back to only three manufacturers. Having failed to win concessions to enter more cars, the French celebrated one final triumph before they pulled up the stumps and planned to stage their own race instead for 1906 – it would be called the Grand Prix.
So what was it about Fernando Alonso’s enterprise in 2017 that reminded the S&G of that enterprising old rogue Gordon Bennett? Well, much has been made of the media hoo-ha that has accompanied Alonso’s month of May in the USA and, most of all, in the UK.
We have been treated to daily, hourly and minute-by-minute reportage from the moment that the project was announced until Alonso’s pitch-perfect acceptance speech for his Rookie of the Year award. Access all areas – and then some. Technical diagrams, race histories, videos – all the fun of the fair.
And all of it has done a fine job of blotting news from elsewhere in the motor sport world – particularly McLaren-Honda’s ongoing woes. Well, right up to the moment when Alonso’s Indy engine went ‘pop’ at least.
What many observers have forgotten is who now owns the news. Because, in a move of which his countryman James Gordon Bennett Jr would wholeheartedly approve, it is none other than Zak Brown, the Executive Director of McLaren, who sits as CEO of the Motorsport Network, which owns pretty well everything these days.
Zak’s media empire, funded by Miami-based Russian billionaire Mike Zoi, embraces the Motorsport.com global portal, the former Haymarket publications Autosport, Motorsport News and F1 Racing together with Motors TV (rebranded as Motorsport TV), as the only non-subscription channel for motor sport. It also picked up the Amalgam brand of high end scale model racing cars.
So, with his McLaren hat on, Zak was confronted with the problem of a slow and unreliable car together with Alonso, still widely regarded as the finest racing driver on Earth today. In other words: a potential PR disaster, given Fernando’s habit of speaking his mind and playing up to the camera when things go awry.
But when one owns the news, PR disasters can much more easily be avoided. Thus sticking Fernando in an Indycar was strategically very sound. It also must have done the ratings across Zak’s network a power of good, with American racing fans trying to find out more about Alonso and F1 fans trying to find out more about Indy.
Zak had a one-stop shop for all and he worked it well. Having placed a number of stories to McLaren’s benefit since buying the media outlets, the Alonso-to-Indy showstopper has broken all previous boundaries between news and PR.
Of course the difference between the past month’s mania for ‘Zalonso’ and the days of James Gordon Bennett Jr is that the Gordon Bennett Cup was effectively owned and administrated by the mogul himself. That might be an investment too far for Zak – in the immediate future at least – but he might not be too far off.
With the sea of New Zealand racing orange across the motor sport coverage this last month, James Gordon Bennett Jr would doubtless be chuckling. If in the back of his mind Zak Brown had wanted to serve notice upon the sport’s owners, he picked the hell of a way to do it.