On Sunday evening in the Monaco paddock, the McLaren hospitality unit was a somber place. What should have been a tense and nervous few hours with hundreds of eyes glued to the nine massive screens that stretch up over three levels – and potentially a big celebration at the end of it all – was a non-event.
Ten people sat around watching the Indy 500, while the majority of the team continued with their work and the hospitality crew packed up.
The failings at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a weekend before meant many of the team that should have been Stateside were at home, or a lucky few in Monaco instead. The reasons for those failings had been laid bare shortly after Fernando Alonso was bumped from the 33: an unprepared team – exemplified by a lack of a steering wheel and a spare car being re-painted a different shade of orange – had not gotten everything together in time to make the show.
“When you get into things like ‘we didn’t have a steering wheel’, it wasn’t like someone forgot to get a steering wheel,” McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown tells RACER. “Just to give context, we were going to do our own steering wheel, we didn’t get it done in time. Yes, Cosworth sells them off the shelf, but getting ready for Indy, everyone’s ordered them, so it ain’t Walmart where you walk in and go ‘I’ll take one of those’.
“By the time I got the call – ‘Oh ****, we need a steering wheel’ – Carlin got us one and I got us one from Cosworth, because you need two. So while the story was raw and made us look pretty bad – which we deserved – it wasn’t like ‘****, no one got a steering wheel!’.
“And then if you look at all the problems that we had, they all came from lack of preparation, because yes, we didn’t get the gears right. The day before, had we got the ride-height right, we would have identified that we didn’t have the gears right. Why didn’t we get the ride-height right? Because we changed set-up that we were rushing on. Why were we rushing on it? Because we didn’t do Thursday…
“It’s like the late Bill Buckner [ED: Red Sox major leaguer who made a notorious fielding error during the 1986 World Series] – it’s the final mistake and everyone remembers that, but they did lose two games before the ball rolled through [his legs], and he ain’t the only guy who had made an error. It was just one of the final moments.
“So at the end of the day, we weren’t prepared for Texas and never rang the bell, which is my fault because I saw it but was assured that everything was under control, and it wasn’t. And you saw the result.”
While Brown was on the ground at IMS to see the final stages of the attempt unravel, he then spent the following weekend in Monaco. A full post-mortem will now be carried out to identify things like when the spare car was sent to be re-painted, who made the call to do so, and why concerns weren’t voiced earlier.
Bob Fernley was head of the McLaren Indy project and his departure made him an immediate scapegoat, but his contract only ran until the 500 regardless. What Brown really wants to know now is the finer details of what tripped his team up.
“I know what I saw, I know what wasn’t done, but what I don’t yet know is the minute-by-minute,” he said “I want to know. I don’t want to just generally know why it wasn’t ready, I want to know who made those decisions, who was consulted, why were those decisions made… I want to do a full post-mortem instead of a half-story.
“We want to go back. Until we do the post-mortem and then sit around the table and go, ‘What did we learn? What would we do differently next time?’. Then the conversation becomes that we want to do it, is there anything that we find we should have done differently but we can’t right now for whatever reason?
“So that will be the sequence: What happened? What would we do differently? Do we want to go back? We want to go back. We will go back. Will we go back in 2020? That will depend on what went wrong this year – can we make sure that’s not going to happen next year?”
An obvious piece of the puzzle that Brown says is already in place is Gil de Ferran. The sporting director was hands-on in F1 when work began on the team’s Indy program, but with Andreas Seidl now installed as team principal and James Key as technical director, all of Brown’s players are on the field.
“I would have liked Gil de Ferran to be involved from the word go, but he was heavily focused on Formula 1,” he said “So that’s one thing that I know I would want to do differently, and he’ll be able to do that from now on.
“So my gut [feeling] is, we’re going to be in a much better position. We’ve done the learning, we’ve bought the cars, we’ve got the equipment, so much of what you would need to do to go [back] has been done. Now it’s about learning where we made the mistakes, and fixing those.”
Now with a car at the factory and Fernando Alonso about to be free from his WEC commitments, entering a race later this year might have been attractive to both McLaren and the Spaniard. Brown insists that won’t happen, and while a race or two in early 2020 is much more likely than a full-time program Brown says the project does not center around Alonso’s involvement.
Still hungry for the Triple Crown, Alonso felt the car McLaren had given him by the end of Bump Day would have been a real contender once the gear ratios were adjusted, and in that there is hope he will still be behind the wheel of a future McLaren entry. After all, the team missed out by one spot on each of Saturday and Sunday – by 000.02mph and 000.019mph respectively – when the closest field in Indy 500 history was set.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Brown says. “In a public sport, you put yourself out there, and you’re going to have your supporters and your critics. I recognize that, I acknowledge that, I accept that.
“There are a lot of uninformed opinions. I see something like ‘I can’t believe they only did one test day’. That’s all we were allowed to do. There are certainly a lot of people that don’t understand, but then there’s also people who say ‘you’re McLaren and you have an expectation and not qualifying is not acceptable’, and I agree.
“So I think what we took on was a big task, it was brave, we got it wrong and we’ll come back fighting. Some people – which I appreciate – recognize that, and then some people don’t recognize that, don’t want to recognize that, aren’t fans of ours and therefore take shots at us.
“That’s the nature of [sport]; whether you go to a football match and you’ve got one guy who is cheering for a team and another guy who is screaming at the quarterback because he threw an interception… I’d like to see him try and throw a touchdown pass. But that’s sport, you have to accept it’s that type of environment.”
Even in the face of such criticism, Brown is confident the members of McLaren’s executive committee share his hunger to return to Indianapolis. A final call on 2020 is likely to be made in the coming weeks, and even if there are roadblocks to an immediate return, it’s clear the 500 is now unfinished business to more than just Alonso.
“We want to go back and I’d like to go back,” Brown insists. “If we’re going to go back next year, we’ll want to make a quick decision so that we’ve got maximum preparation, because a lack of preparation is what got us where we are this time.
“I don’t want to predict that we’re going to go back. I’d like to go back. All the reasons why McLaren should be at Indy are still valid reasons, and we’re not quitters. We’re racers.
“Even though this was the lowest point in my career and a massive high-profile failure, you’ve got to get back on the horse.”