It wasn’t a surprise that McLaren struggled this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most of us figured the proud Formula 1 team would find starting an IndyCar team from scratch to be a big challenge.
But nobody thought Fernando Alonso could miss the show. Well… that’s not entirely true. That thought began creeping into our minds late in the week as we watched this train wreck unfold.
From the Open Test when the car died and it took an hour to figure out why, to taking more than a day to prepare the backup car, to missing 10 minutes of valuable practice on Sunday morning to the sparkler show off the gearbox when they couldn’t dial in the ride height, McLaren looked as out of synch as it did out of place.
“I think they were kind of arrogant about what it takes to run here,” said a veteran mechanic. “But I don’t think they are anymore.”
It’s not that Zak Brown’s team lacked mechanical skills. Or technical experience, since they had former Indy-winning engineer Andy Brown. They built one car in England with their people and the other was assembled in Florida with some longtime Indy mechanics. But it appears they were woefully short of structure and direction.
The Dallara DW12 is a different animal to a homemade F1 chassis, especially on an oval. There is a finite art to preparing a car to cut through the air at 230 mph with identical chassis.
“Spec racing is hard. It’s all about details, not design,” said veteran Sebastien Bourdais, who qualified seventh for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. “It’s all about the car and the people working on the car. They didn’t didn’t have current people, so I really wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t Fernando’s fault; he ran wide-open. That’s all you can ask here.”
Asked if he felt sorry for Alonso, the always-candid Bourdais replied: “No, I think he’s relieved. He didn’t want to start in the last row in a car that had no chance to win.”
In joining Team Penske (1995), Bobby Rahal (1993) and Rodger Ward (1965), Alonso’s name has been added to a list of stars who missed out in qualifying at Indianapolis after previous success.
And while it was the kind of drama that makes Indy qualifying so special – watching Kyle Kaiser and the little Juncos team KO Alonso and Mighty McLaren on the final run of the Last Row Shootout – not having the orange Go Smile machine in this year’s race isn’t good.
Brown, McLaren’s CEO, who obviously has an affection for Indy and certainly seems to be serious about trying to run IndyCar full-time, said that the team’s performance here this month could help determine if they pull the trigger. So you don’t know what this setback could mean for the future.
“We’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons here that will carry forward, and that possibility (full-time) is still in consideration,” said Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy winner who is McLaren’s sporting director. “But no decision has been made.”
Having McLaren join the lineup would be good for IndyCar, and having Alonso in the Indy 500 again would be good for television ratings and interest because he’s one of the few racers that can move the needle.
He said at the end of a long day that it was too early to make any decision about whether or not he’ll return in 2020, but you have to wonder if it would be with McLaren if he does. He no doubt had flashbacks to his futile final days with the team in F1, so it might behoove IndyCar to explore getting him in a competitive ride as an enticement.
Bourdais made a great point in that Alonso wasn’t destroyed by not qualifying because he had zero chance of being competitive, let alone winning. And after his dazzling debut in 2017 when he led laps and ran up front, he’s not interested in driving around and finishing 15th; he did that the last few years in F1.
The 37-year-old Spaniard isn’t just a credit to motorsports, he’s a rare breed of personality and professionalism who understands how to play the game. He came to the media center after qualifying was over Sunday and answered questions for 20 minutes. I imagine a root canal might have been the preferred option, but he was classy and forthright and gracious. No excuses, no whining, no pity -– just an honest post mortem.
He missed making the show by an eyelash, and those 10 minutes Sunday morning could have given him five more laps of focus on gearing and handling after getting new dampers from Andretti Autosport.
But, like everything else these past few days, McLaren missed the boat and it’s going to sail without them on May 26. I just hope Fred comes back with a fighting chance next May.