By Ollie Barstow
Follow @OllieBarstowF1 on Twitter
They say all news is good news, but it's been hard to find the silver lining in McLaren's increasingly stormy relationship with Honda and Fernando Alonso in recent weeks.
From the pains of its stuttering pre-season testing campaign to the evident bitterness emanating from Alonso that the promise of a competitive 2017 machine has been betrayed, McLaren has found itself at the centre of a spiralling twister of bad publicity in the last few weeks.
Most galling of all for McLaren though is it is ultimately suffering from the flaws of its faltering partner. The term winning and losing together has never felt so abrasive.
Fast forward a few short days and McLaren is dominating the headlines for - predominantly - the right reasons again with the shock announcement that Fernando Alonso will contest the Indy 500 and his replacement for the Monaco Grand Prix will be Jenson Button.
Ironically, Alonso's Indy 500 deal has only been made possible by some bold manoeuvring behind-the-scenes by Honda, for which McLaren and Alonso have arguably reaped most dividend in precious column inches. It seems only fair…
Indeed, while the immediate focus may be on Alonso and his realised dream of taking another step towards motorsport's legendary 'Triple Crown', truthfully the events of the last few days are part of a bigger picture to recover some much-needed positive publicity than simply giving McLaren's star driver the chance to demonstrate his credentials. It doesn't come without risk though.
First and foremost, it is absolutely plausible to suggest McLaren wouldn't be in F1 without Honda – at least not in such a strong financial position. Honda's huge monetary input is ultimately necessary for McLaren's F1 project, making the power unit struggles literally worth enduring.
Nevertheless, it doesn't disguise the damage it is doing to McLaren's immense but precious brand power. After all, it is a high-end quality sportscar manufacturer and technology innovator whose premium project is being let down by the unreliability of a more mainstream partner with arguably far less to lose in terms of reputation (and money).
It means that if McLaren-Honda can't win on track, it has to do something rather extraordinary off it.
Alonso's Indy 500 deal may have been hastily arranged but it helpfully comes at a good time for McLaren as it looks to expand its footprint in the crucial United States market. The buzz around McLaren (albeit in name only) participating in one of the United States' biggest – and most commercially potent – sporting events makes a lot of sense even before you consider it will be piloted by a two-time F1 world champion in Alonso to guarantee international attention.
Regardless of where Alonso finishes – and few imagine he can be a podium contender out of the box -, simply being there, not stuffing into the wall on lap two and hopefully making the chequered flag will ultimately be story enough for McLaren to benefit from, even if it Andretti Autosport and Honda will arguably be the defining factor in actually getting him to the end.
“It is part of the legacy of the past with McLaren and winning in the Indy 500,” Eric Boullier told reporters at the Bahrain Grand Prix. “This is our best market, our first market in terms of commercial and automotive side so there is a lot of positive boxes to tick in this project. Part of building a longer-term relationship with Honda and Alonso and all the people in the project it was the propose to Alonso to do it. “
The big picture
In fact, that 'bigger picture' is massive and transcends McLaren alone.
The arrival of Liberty Media and the likelihood of a specific push into the US market, McLaren – spurred on by Zak Brown - is well placed to capitalise immediately on the potential interest of sponsors turned on by an American-centric sport, while McLaren doing its own bit to get F1 good headlines in the US won't have gone unnoticed either.
Better still, with Jenson Button racing in the Monaco Grand Prix, McLaren has a great story that just became even greater.
Of course, Button remains a massive asset to the McLaren family, even if few were ever convinced his 'sabbatical' was anything less than a 'retirement with less of the last race fuss'. The former champion has maintained a relatively low profile since he bid farewell to the sport in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – triathlons notwithstanding – but it is reasonable to assume the idea of Button replacing Alonso in Monaco was considered from the get go.
You have to wonder if McLaren would have been more hesitant had it not been blessed with another world champion on its books to call upon. Sure, Button could have said no but as Boullier points out 'he is still our driver' so it was unlikely he would have been able to without good reason.
It is ironic – and appropriate - that he turned up in 2017 McLaren overalls on the day of the Alonso announcement filming a new spot for Santander, who have retained him as its public face despite his racing absence such as his enduring star power. The Spanish banking giant will surely be happy to see Button hitting the headlines again. In short, everyone wins… maybe except Stoffel.
Zak Brown's mark
McLaren started the season pledging to 'change its game' and the Alonso/Button double whammy is at the very least a bold move by new CEO Brown to demonstrate what he does best and generate the most positive publicity with tools at his disposal if McLaren cannot do that organically on the track.
It is surely no coincidence that this has all been announced on the very doorstep of McLaren's majority Bahraini consortium owners
Yes it could prove a risk on the day… but it is calculated right down to the finer details of how it promotes McLaren, Honda, Alonso, Button and motorsport as a whole over the next 44 days and beyond.
After all, no-one expects a win but one can bet Alonso finishing 8th in the Indy 500 will be remembered more readily than if he finished 8th in the Monaco Grand Prix… more so if Button finds himself in the points come race day too.
Is it inspired or simply a smokescreen? Time will tell, but if you can't beat them or join them, why not dazzle them instead?
By Ollie Barstow
Follow @OllieBarstowF1 on Twitter