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McLaren Woes Sending Alonso To Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 18 2017

Tough times at his McLaren Honda Formula One team are the reason Fernando Alonso is heading to Indianapolis next month.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fernando Alonso admits that his startling decision to compete in the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 next month was triggered by the sad fact that McLaren Honda _ after only three of 20 races _ is not a player for the 2017 FIA Formula One World Championship.

Yeah, definitely,” said Alonso, a two-time F1 World Driving Champion, who announced last week he will skip the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix to drive for Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28. “I think, you know, I have to be honest, knowing that in a way if we (McLaren Honda) were competitive, if we were fighting for the world championship, we cannot afford to lose 25 points possibility (for a win). But, yeah, we are not in that position unfortunately.”

The reality is that three years into its latest technical partnership with Honda, McLaren has become an F1 also-ran.

Alonso finished 14th in a 19-car starting field during Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix after qualifying 15th and placing as high as 12th during the 57-lapper. The Spaniard pulled into the pits after completing 54 laps, complaining of a problem with the car’s power unit. The same issue prevented teammate Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium from starting the race at Bahrain International Circuit.

Sunday’s finish mirrored Alonso’s 2017 season. Alonso finished 14th (DNF) after completing 50 of 57 laps in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. Round 2, the Chinese Grand Prix in Bejing, was a bigger disaster as Alonso finished 16th after completing only 33 of 56 laps.

Vandoorne (18th) and Alonso (19th) are scoreless in the driver’s championship led by Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion and the winner in Australia and Bahrain. McLaren and its MCL32 chassis sit 10th/last and embarrassingly scoreless in the constructor’s standings.

Yusuke Hasegawa, the boss of Honda’s F1 project, called the Bahrain weekend “a disaster” due to the team’s recurring reliability issues with its MGU-H unit. Alonso failed to turn a lap during Q2 on Saturday while Vandoorne did not start the race, reportedly after a fourth failure of his car’s MGU-H unit in three days.

Founded in 1966 by the late Bruce McLaren, the team based in Working, England, has compiled 182 wins among its 485 podium finishes as well as eight championships. McLaren drivers also have accumulated 155 poles and 154 fastest laps.  

In a bow to political correctness, Alonso also noted a Bucket List desire to win motorsports’ Triple Crown of F1’s Monaco Grand Prix (which he has won twice), the Indy 500 and sports car’s 24 Hours of Le Mans as motivating factors in his stunning decision.

“Well, I think the interest is very clear,” Alonso said prior to the Bahrain GP. “(The Indy 500) Is one of the best races in the world, one of the most prestigious races in the world. As a driver, if you want to be the best, if you want to be considered the best, you need to be able to drive all type of cars in all different series and be able to be competitive in all of them, and if possible to win all of them.

So after, you know, a successful F1 championships, I think the opportunity to race in Indy 500, the opportunity to race one day in the future in Le Mans, that dream of the Triple Crown, winning all the Big Three, is something very attractive for a driver point-of-view.”

The deal was brokered between Alonso and American Zak Brown, McLaren Technology Group executive director, and started as a casual conversation.

I think it’s a mix of us two,” said Alonso, 35. “To be honest, the journey start on Australia. We have a conversation at the circuit. Zak ask me what were my ambitions, my plans for the future. I mention the Triple Crown, you know, to be the best driver in the world. I either have to win eight world championships and have one more than Michael Schumacher, which is unlikely at the moment, or winning different series.

I used to remember when I was a kid, you know, the best drivers driving the best cars in the best championships in the world, the best series in the world. If that was an ambition for me, Zak told me that it was an ambition for McLaren, as well. He’s much more open compared to the past McLaren (leadership) about expanding McLaren in different series, in Indy 500, that McLaren won in the past, in Le Mans 24 Hours, that McLaren also succeed in the past.

Together with McLaren and Zak, that was thinking to open McLaren for the future to different series, and one of them was Indy. I think this brave decision to compete this year already with a very short period of time to adapt and to learn many things that will be necessary, that’s a huge challenge in front of us. The challenge is so big that is exciting at the same time.”

Californian Brown was confirmed as Executive Director of McLaren Technology Group on Nov. 21, 2016, one week after Ron Dennis was removed from his role of Chairman/CEO by shareholders. Brown has operated as one F1’s leading business figures for the last decade.

With the blessings of McLaren and Honda of Japan and Honda Performance Development/American Honda in California, the next step in the process involved Brown and Mark Miles. The latter is CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“Zak called me after he had a sense that this was doable from their perspective,” Miles said during a news conference, “and asked if we could help identify a quality team with a Honda here in Indianapolis. We talked about the possibilities, and then we approached some of our Honda teams. At one point in time, we were kind of long-faced because it looked like there was no ride available. The equipment was all spoken for or there were no other engines or cars out there that we thought we could make available. That was kind of a dark day.

“Not long after that, we stated a conversation with Stefan Wilson, who had lined-up a Honda ride with Andretti that was well-sponsored. He is such a terrific guy. We had a long dialogue that was over the course of a couple days and agreed that if we could take care of his sponsors _ in other words, get them the benefits that they had bargained for were he to stay in the car in 2017 and if he could have future IndyCar opportunities _ then he would be happy to cooperate with us to achieve this possibility for McLaren and Alonso.

“All of that was taken care of, and he (Wilson) will run in the Indianapolis 500-mile race in 2018; he will be very visible and much a part of the IndyCar scene and here at IMS and not just this May and throughout the year and in the driver’s seat in 2018. So we are very grateful to Stefan. It’s basically how it came together. You can imagine there is a lot behind that, but we are so thrilled that’s now a reality.

“Fernando is a two-time Formula One World Champion and a three-time runnerup. He has started 275 grand prix races and won 32 of them. From our perspective, he is the gold standard of motorsport drivers around the world.”

Team-owner Michael Andretti _ who won the 2016 Indy 500 with ex-F1 aspirant and INDYCAR rookie Alexander Rossi _ definitely is looking for a repeat of his organization’s Month of May magic.

This is going to be awesome, and I think it’s awesome for everybody involved, including the whole sport of auto racing, and such a big story,” Andretti said. “It’s pretty crazy the way it unfolded, and we were working with Michael Shank and Stefan Wilson on putting a deal together for a sixth car. When you (Miles) approached me we started dialogue with Stefan to see if he would be willing to step aside for this one and hopefully get something together for next year. He was great, and he worked well on getting through all of this with his sponsors, and it truly is a team effort.

“You have to say between us and Honda and IMS and McLaren, I think this was just a great effort to be able to put this together, and again I’m so excited and it’s going to be a great deal. This couldn’t happen without Michael Shank Racing, and he will be bringing his resources into this team and sort of similar to what Bryan Herta did with us last year. Obviously, that worked out pretty well for us.

“So we’re excited about it. I think we’re ready for a challenge, and we’re set and we’re really well-organized to get this all done and put six competitive cars on the racetrack.”

Alonso never has driven a Dallara Indy car chassis with a turbocharged Honda Hl17TT Indy V6, much less compete on an oval. At IMS, Alonso will be challenged by a 2.5-mile oval ringed by concrete walls protected by SAFER Barrier technology, sustained race day speeds in excess of 225 mph and as many as seven pit stops.

Andretti is confident Alonso can handle that entire checklist using the resources of his team.

“He is going to have four veterans _ well, I guess we call Rossi a veteran _ helping him,” said Andretti, whose driver lineup features 2014 Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. “He (Alonso) has a steep learning curve; I think that will be key for him. I think if you look at our record with rookies in the past, you know that we had Carlos Munoz with us and we went out and finished second (in 2013, voted Indy 500 Rookie of the Year). We had (NASCAR regular) Kurt Busch, who was a rookie and was very competitive and finished sixth (2014), and last year obviously with Alex and coming there as a rookie and winning the race.

“I think that having the talent like Alonso, who is one of the best, if not the best, drivers in the world, I don’t think he is going to have a problem with that. I think our environment is going to be really good for him to get up to speed. I think Indianapolis is a perfect place, as well. You have so much practice time, and there’s a lot less pressure because of that practice time and you can really build up to it. And so there is no question in my mind that if we have competitive cars this Month of May, Fernando is going to be very competitive.”

Alonso said his pre-Indy test program is a work in progress. “(There are) still some conversations about this possibility of testing in the simulator either in Italy or in Indianapolis, together also with some seat fitting that is required in Indianapolis in Andretti’s factory,” Alonso said.  “The only one thing that is confirmed is that I will attend to the race weekend in Alabama.”

Round 3 of the schedule, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, will be run at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday. The layout is a 2.3-mile road-course with 17 turns.

“Is not an oval,” Alonso said, “but I will go there to see the race behind the scenes and have the first touch with the team, to have a great atmosphere when Indy comes. Yeah, try to learn as much as possible and maybe have the help from someone or ex-drivers, like a coach or something, you know, to have as many conversations as possible in these couple of weeks.”

Asked to realistically rate his chances of winning, Alonso said he will head to IMS without expectations. “I don’t go there with a clear target,” Alonso said. “I’m very open to anything. I feel very privileged starting on just participating to the event.

I know that there are some driving techniques that are very different. I need to learn many procedures, like the restart, the pit stop sequences, many things that will be new for me, apart from obviously the car and racing on the ovals that definitely is a big challenge. So, yeah, this is a step forward in my career. If I want to be the best driver and the most complete driver in the world, I need to learn, I need to know how driving those cars in the ovals at the maximum speed, driving so close to each other, respect each other. Yeah, is something that I’m looking forward.

You know, I don’t put any target. But last year a rookie in the same team that we are in with Andretti, they won the Indy 500. You need a little bit of luck. You need the strategy with you. You need many things. But nothing is impossible in motorsport. If I want to be the Triple Crown (winner) one day, I need to win Indy 500. Is challenging in the first attempt, but we will try to perform as best as we can.”

Alonso noted that he has been contacted by a two-time Indy 500 champion, and former F1 regular, about his Brickyard bid.

“Juan Pablo Montoya wrote me saying, ‘Welcome to Indy. Anything you may need, I’m here,’^” Alonso said. “So, you know, there is a great respect and a great welcome so far.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 18 2017
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