Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud discusses his preparation for the Indy 500 during a ‘roller coaster’ IndyCar season.
Zak Brown and Fernando Alonso’s last trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a house of horrors, one tiny error after another that snowballed into a colossal disaster. But after McLaren Racing embraced the long play this offseason in its full-time step into American open-wheel racing, they may only have one shot at redemption.
A brand like McLaren doesn’t just enter the Indianapolis 500 on a whim, and they don’t do it with just any driver. Last year’s trip to Indianapolis represented one of the world’s most recognizable racing brands and its attempt to support one of the world’s best drivers in his pursuit of auto racing’s Triple Crown – winning the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indy 500.
Graham Hill remains the only driver to have achieved the feat – doing so nearly a half-century ago with the 1972 Le Mans as his last leg. To date, Alonso has won Monaco in 2006 and 2007 and Le Mans in 2018 and 2019,
But Alonso’s dogged pursuit of a full-time racing career at 39 years old, as he returns to Formula 1 in 2021 with Renault, has put a 12-day timer on Arrow McLaren’s hopes to, in some way, rebound from the disappointment the McLaren arm suffered a year ago, while utilizing Alonso’s skills as one of the best one-off drivers the Greatest Spectacle in Racing has ever seen.
During a media Zoom call Tuesday, Alonso confirmed that, due to his F1 obligations – both in time and partnership – returning to IMS in 2021 and 2022 in an Indy car would be “impossible”.
“That will not work. I know, at least for two years, I won’t be here,” he said. “But I’m here and ready to enjoy the event and give my best help to the team as much as I can, and we’ll see in the future what are the possibilities.”
Over the next two weeks, a team that has overwhelmingly exceeded its leaders’ expectations through six 2020 IndyCar races will try to do what seemed impossible 15 months ago: Take a driver whose team didn’t manage to have his steering wheel on-time for his first test in 2019 and deliver him to Roger Penske’s refurbished Victory Lane.
“The biggest lesson we learned is don’t do what we did last year,” Brown said. “There were a lot of mistakes you have to make when you don’t qualify for a race. You’ve got to get it pretty wrong for a team like McLaren and a driver like Fernando Alonso to not make the show.
“And as racers, you want to come back with your guys that, sometimes, you win with, and sometimes you crash with.”
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Brown’s first step this offseason to put déjà vu at bay was to understand he didn’t have to go it alone. A year ago, Brown may have been a bit over-eager after Alonso’s Indy 500 debut in 2017. McLaren and Alonso teamed up with Andretti Autosport and, for the most part, according to Brown, let famed team owner Michael Andretti call the shots. There, Alonso was arguably the star of the show, leading 27 laps before bowing out late with a blown engine.
In 2019, Brown said, he brought “a bunch of (IndyCar) rookies” across the pond to try and match, or beat, the feat.
“It all really started with that first test in Texas,” Brown said. “There were a variety of issues that we should have had enough time to be prepared for, and when we didn’t respond urgently enough and you don’t solve those and you continue to have them, and your car crashes…”
Needless to say, Alonso proved too slow in the Last Row Shootout and was bumped by budget-team Juncos still searching for sponsorship to fill their pristine white chassis entirely devoid of sponsorship logos.
Three months later, McLaren had latched onto what was formerly Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and helped start a sea change in the organization. After letting go of fan-favorite driver James Hinchcliffe, who still had a year left on his contract, and watching former F1 driver Marcus Ericsson walk to Chip Ganassi Racing, the newly-named team embraced youth with the youngest two-driver tandem in the series in rookie Oliver Askew and then-20-year-old Patricio O’Ward.
“A lot of people have said that it’s really risky, it’s a gamble, but we really don’t think it is,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said back in October of the duo. “These young guns we feel are the future of this team.”
So far, the two have lived up to the hype, with seven combined top-10 finishes over the first six races of the year – including their first-career IndyCar podiums. Leading into the Indy 500, Arrow McLaren SP is the only team, outside of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing to have more than one driver finish on the podium in 2020.
“My expectations, personally, were quite a bit lower than where we’re at today,” said McLaren Racing sporting director Gil de Ferran. “Both these guys have shown a great deal of speed, and our integration has been, from my perspective, very high.”
That integration of the two formerly separate racing operations is the key – but one the team’s decision makers would rather leave the details hazy. Though Schmidt told IndyStar last week that McLaren has “six or seven” engineers back in its Surrey, England headquarters solely dedicated to its IndyCar partnership, de Ferran and Brown were less enthused to divulge even the smallest specifics about the inner-workings of the partnership on Tuesday’s call.
“We want to be a little careful in giving too much detail. I will say we have a good, strong handful of fully dedicated IndyCar folks that have their own space,” Brown said. “And they have a variety of tools and additional people they can pull on. At the end of the day, what we’ve provided is an additive to what was Arrow SP before it became Arrow McLaren SP, which is exciting.”
Added de Ferran: “I’ve got to be careful what I say. I don’t want to give away any secrets.”
Schmidt, though, likened the partnership to waltzing “into a really, really, really high-end electronics shop.”
“You can say, ‘Oh man, I want that toy and that toy and that toy,’” he said. “Whether it’s software or analytics or data processing, there’s a number of things we didn’t have the time, energy or resources to create, and it’s already been done in F1.
“We don’t run NASCAR or IMSA or Formula E, and all that which allows teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti to stack a bunch of engineering resources and tools. This was the way to get there. McLaren has that in their toolbox, and that was an integral part of the deal.”
But, as Schmidt explains, it was an asset he was prepared to wait a year to be able to utilize. The teams announced the partnership last August, coming weeks later with the official team name and branding, but at that point, as they finalized their drivers and new stateside engineering genius Craig Hampson, both sides were already nearing the starts of their respective 2020 seasons – blissfully unaware of what it had in store.
“There wasn’t going to be a way to really activate all that until after the (2020) season was over. But when COVID-19 hit, Zak made a decision not to furlough those six or seven people working specifically on our program over there,” Schmidt told IndyStar. “That enabled our engineering team, through Microsoft Teams and everything else, to put our heads down and accomplish now what we were planning to do in the offseason.
“A lot of things in engineering get thrown out there, and you don’t know if they’ll work until you get to the track, but we’re fairly confident that it will help in this environment with an August race and shortened practice time. We can focus entirely on the drivers, and we genuinely believe we’re going to roll out with some really good cars.”
Hampson, who spent three years with Andretti before three more with Dale Coyne Racing, has served as the point-person connected with folks back in England. Not having to focus on any one car this year has allowed Hampson to flourish, Schmidt said. For the Aug. 23 Indy 500, he’ll be in Alonso’s ear doing his best to help bring the last 15 months full-circle – from not even good enough to take the grid to sipping milk and hoisting the Borg Warner.
For the team so many in the sport have already hinted at having the best potential to possibly challenge IndyCar’s Big Three in the near-future, any significant success over the next 12 days would be a monumental achievement in 2020, given McLaren’s failure a year ago and the former Arrow Schmidt Peterson outfit’s mediocrity with Hinchcliffe and a rotating cast of characters since Simon Pagenaud left for Penske after 2014.
But the Mt. Everest of achievements for the one-year-old pairing – one that would bring them and the sport worldwide acclaim – may only be on the table in 2020. We’ll see in two weekends if the team that chose youth and patience this fall can make the ultimate rebound.
“At the moment one day before practice last year, I was optimistic, and I’m optimistic this year as well,” Alonso chuckled. “I think we need to wait and see where we are on the potential of the car.
“But I’m confident that, if we do things well, maybe luck goes on our side this time.”
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Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.