By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
After the checkered flag flies on the end of both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Formula 1 seasons later this month, Jimmie Johnson and Fernando Alonso will get to do something that not many have done before and that is climb behind the wheel of the other’s car to experience life in their world for a day.
On November 26 at Bahrain International Circuit, Johnson will get his first stint in a Formula 1 car, taking over Alonso’s McLaren, while the two-time F1 world champion will get a taste of driving a stock car in Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet.
So how did this whole thing come together? Turns out a chance meeting during NASCAR Media Days in Charlotte back in January set everything in motion.
“Fernando was coming through on his way to the Rolex 24 and we had a chance to meet,” Johnson said. “I think many of you saw the picture and obviously, saw Fernando there. He only had to mention it once, he said ‘hey man, would you ever want to trade cars?’ I’m like ‘heck yeah.’ Immediately, we started the process with our teams and it’s been a very fun process.
“Everyone at McLaren has been fantastic. It’s been great to watch Formula 1 with a whole new interest knowing that I get a chance to drive Fernando’s car and go watch the final race in Abu Dhabi two weeks, I guess it is and then have a chance to driver the car in Bahrain. Started in January and here we are in November finishing it off.”
The swap will be the third such event in recent memory after Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya swapped cars at Indianapolis back in 2003 and Tony Stewart was able to do the same with Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen in 2011.
“The first thing I think is going to be to have fun,” Alonso said of the opportunity. “I think we all love racing, any type of racing and to test for the very first time a NASCAR car with the huge following and all the repercussion that NASCAR has in the world of motorsports for me the first thing that I want to experience and I want to have that opportunity in life and it’s happening now in a couple of weeks’ time. That is the very first thing that I want to do and to have fun is the first priority.
“I think ultimately what you want is to be a better driver in the future, so I probably will learn things from the team, I will learn things from Jimmie and different driving styles, different techniques, different approach of racing and all of that will make a better driver for myself. That is the second thing. To racing in the future, I think the first thing is to test the car, to see how it feels, to see how enjoyable it is to drive it and who knows in the future. I don’t have a key answer to that question.”
After deciding that they were going to see this thing through, the first thing to figure out was the location. Johnson noted that multiple locations were thrown around, but ultimately Bahrain the day after the F1 season finale made the most sense for all parties involved.
“We were looking at a few places here,” Johnson said. “We looked at the Brickyard. We looked at Homestead. We looked at Charlotte. We looked at a few different places, but obviously their equipment is on the run all the time. So, trying to understand where their equipment would be in North America between the Austin race or something in Canada or somewhere around Mexico City. And when all of that started coming together, we wouldn’t necessarily have equipment ready on our side. So, we just kind of ran into a few snags and it felt like it wasn’t going to work right.
“When Zak Brown (chief executive officer) from McLaren mentioned Bahrain, I believe one of the investors in McLaren owns the Bahrain track (Bahrain International Circuit), so it just made to go there. We kicked around the idea of doing it in Abu Dhabi the Monday after the race, but I guess there’s a test session for their industry on Tuesday and Wednesday and the logistics of that weren’t working out too well. Bahrain isn’t all that far away in the scheme of things. They have their own test teams and they’re sending their test equipment over there and it just kind of works out.
“Another piece to it too is I just wanted to do something different than what had been done in the past. I think Jeff (Gordon) and Tony (Stewart) had great opportunities. They were unique experiences at very cool race tracks, and I just wanted to kind of have my own twist on it as well. With Fernando’s desire to run a lot of lap and not just a lap or a handful of laps, this opportunity really made the most sense.”
With the location set, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team went to work on getting the car put together and ready to ship overseas for the event. That time came just after the conclusion of the Charlotte ROVAL race in October, so the team elected to use the backup car for that race to give Alonso a car that was already set up for a road course.
Johnson said his plans were to head to London after the Cup Series season finale at Homestead to spend some time with the McLaren team, getting fitted for a seat and spending some time on the simulator to learn the Bahrain course before heading to Abu Dhabi for the F1 finale and then on to Bahrain for the event.
Joining Johnson in Bahrain will be a select number of crew members from HMS, with Alan Gustafson serving as crew chief while Chad Knaus stays on this side of the pond with a new addition to his family.
“Chad (Knaus) has put in a ton of time and effort and work on the project, but with the new baby and the end of the year when it falls, he’s choosing to stay back and stay home,” Johnson said. “And then we have offered it up through the No. 48 side, initially; and honestly, it’s taken a few twists and turns of people who can and can’t go, so I don’t know everybody specifically who is going, but Alan will be the one calling the shots over there for us.”