Alonso’s Indy 500 2019 Bid Runs Into A Wall

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 15 2019
Fernando Alonso found the wall at Indy during Wednesday’s practice for this year’s 500. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Open-wheel history has proven there are two types of drivers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway _ those that have hit the wall and those that will hit the wall.

Fernando Alonso finally joined the former Tuesday during the second of four days of practice leading into qualifications for the 103rd edition of the Indianapolis 500 on May 26. Preparing for his second start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Alonso was involved in a single-car incident in Turn 3 of the 2.5-mile oval.

“It was understeer on the car, and even if I lifted the throttle on the entry of the corner, it was not enough, and I lost completely the front aero,” said Alonso, driver of the No. 66 McLaren Racing Chevrolet. ”The wall came too close and too quickly. Unfortunately it happened today. We will lose a little bit of running time again. I’m sorry for the team, but we will learn and hopefully we will come back stronger tomorrow. I’m disappointed and sad for the team and for the guys.

“We worked quite a lot on the car and definitely now it’s quite damaged, so I feel sorry for the team and for my mistake. We will learn from this and hopefully tomorrow we’re back on track and back stronger.”

Alonso said there was no indication anything was loose on the papaya orange Dallara chassis that was built at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, United Kingdom. Alonso’s pit crew and engineers are McLaren employees, assisted by an engineering alliance from Trevor Carlin’s NTT IndyCar Series organization.

Members of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren race team go to work on the Spanish driver’s crashed car.

“I think it was just pure understeer that I didn’t expect,” said Alonso, 37. “I was running a bit close to another car and suddenly mid-corner I lost completely the front grip. I tried to lift off and avoid the wall.”

Alonso qualified the No. 29 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport fifth for his first oval-track race at IMS two years ago and was running seventh when an engine failure on Lap 180 of the scheduled 200 ended a storybook Month of May. Alonso led 27 laps and was named Rookie of the Year. Alonso’s ride with Michael Andretti’s team in 2017 featured Honda power and the manufacturer’s Speedway aero kit package. Sanctioning body INDYCAR switched to a universal aero kit furnished by Dallara for engine suppliers Honda and Chevrolet last year _ another new item for the Spaniard to address.

Alonso placed 32nd among drivers hot-lapping during Tuesday’s opening day of practice with a top speed of 224.162 mph after 50 laps. In comparison, reigning Indy 500 champion Will Power of Team Penske topped the chart at 229.745 mph. All 36 entered drivers were on track and completed a total of 3,003 laps.

“It felt much better than yesterday,” Alonso said of his Day 2 experience prior to the crash. “Definitely we were moving in the right direction. Small steps that we learned today that hopefully we can bring for next time. I’m sorry for the guys.”

Alonso said he did not know if the team’s backup No. 66 would be ready for Thursday’s practice. “Nothing you can do,” Alonso said. “These things happen in motorsport. Better today than on the 26th. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”

The F1 World Champion in 2005 and 2006, Alonso will be looking to secure the final leg of motorsports’ Triple Crown with a victory at IMS. Alonso won F1’s “Crown Jewel” street race _ the Monaco Grand Prix _ in 2006 and 2007 driving for Renault and McLaren, respectively.

Alonso added a victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his debut in the French sports car endurance classic in June 2018 driving a Toyota hybrid along with Kazuki Nakajima of Japan and Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland. With his shared victory at Le Mans, Alonso became one of only 13 drivers to have won two of three legs of the Triple Crown. Two-time F1 World Champion Graham Hill of Great Britain is the only driver to have won at Monaco, Le Mans and Indianapolis.

Alonso exited McLaren’s struggling F1 program after the 2018 campaign with career totals of 22 poles, 32 victories and 97 podium finishes. He began 2019 as a member of Wayne Taylor Racing’s winning Cadillac DPi team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, the season-opener for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Alonso shared the No. 10 Caddy with American Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande of The Netherlands and Kamui Kobayashi of Japan.

Zak Brown, chief executive of McLaren Racing, acknowledged that Alonso’s Indy 500 bid this year is more challenging than two years ago. The effort began with a test on Texas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval on April 9, when Alonso turned 105 laps during an extended shakedown in a sister car to the No. 66 that was crashed at IMS.

“It (2017) was easy because Michael did the majority of the work and has got a lot of experience, and we knew we’d be putting Fernando into a great race car. And it was in a short period of time,” Brown said during a presser at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach last month. “So this time is a totally different experience. This is a full McLaren effort. We’re getting some assistance from Carlin, but that is more operational, giving Fernando some teammates, some data sharing, things of that nature, which is good, because being a one-car team you can get lost around Indianapolis. We need some kind of support and some element of having some teammates come the Month of May.”

Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy 500 champion, and Bob Fernley are leading McLaren’s INDYCAR program. But among Alonso’s observers at TMS was three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth in his role as McLaren Racing Team Ambassador. “Lone Star J.R.” competed at IMS in McLaren cars from 1973-79, a run highlighted by victories in Offy-powered entries in 1974 and 1976 sandwiched around a runnerup result in 1975. Rutherford and McLaren also finished last in the 1977 race.

Brown alluded to that legacy at IMS as one marked by fond memories. “We’ve got guys at the race shop that were a part of the team then,” Brown said. “And, of course, we’ve got Johnny Rutherford who joined us in Texas and will be around with us in the Month of May, and I think we’ve got a great history and something that we want to recognize and celebrate. You know _ the Teddy Mayers, the Tyler Alexanders _ who all were a big part of our Indianapolis success. So to have the numbers, the papaya orange and really be able to build our brand further in North America. We’ve got such a great history, that’s where we should pick it back up from.

“North America is a very important market for McLaren, our businesses, our automotive business, our technology business, and then for our sponsoring partners, and so everyone is very excited.”

Brown said Rutherford, 81, specifically will be counted on for the experience gleaned from his 24 Indy 500 starts. “Fernando is someone who loves information and recognizes when he lacks experience in a certain area,” Brown said. “So I think he’s a lot more comfortable this time around, but Fernando will never leave anything on the table if he feels it will help him.

“Indianapolis is such a unique circuit when you get into wind direction and cloud cover and things of that nature and that type of experience Johnny has. So Johnny, outside of helping just represent the McLaren brand, technically I think he can convey his experiences to Fernando, which Fernando very much welcomes.”

Brown confirmed that McLaren remains on-course for a fulltime return to INDYCAR. “It’s a place that McLaren would like to race,” Brown said. “We’ve been very focused on Formula 1, and we remain very focused on Formula 1, but I’ve now completed the hiring of the balance of the leadership for the Formula 1 team now that James Key has started as technical director and Andreas Seidl is the managing director of the Formula 1 team. And so going ahead and getting the equipment, making the investment in doing Indianapolis this year in the way we are is another step in that direction.

“There is no doubt that the shareholders at McLaren would like to be in INDYCAR. I think it’s more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if’_ and if we were to do it for 2020, I think you’d need to make that decision in the summer in order to be properly prepared. So it’s nothing that we’ve ruled out for 2020, and that decision will come sometime in the summer, and if not then, then we’ll look towards 2021.

“Yeah, I think if we come into INDYCAR racing, it would definitely be a two-car team, that’s for sure.’

A year ago, Power delivered team-owner Roger Penske his record 17th Indianapolis 500 victory. The 2014 IndyCar Series champion said most of Tuesday’s speeds weren’t representative because they came with the aid of aerodynamic tows from leading cars.

Power and his No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet led four Chevy-powered Dallaras atop the speed chart_ three from Team Penske. Simon Pagenaud, winner of Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, was second-fastest at 229.703 mph in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves fourth in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevy (228.441 mph).

Ed Carpenter, team owner/driver and pole-winner in 2018, was third on the chart at 228.653 mph in the No. 20 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet. Ed Jones, Carpenter’s teammate in the No. 63 Ed Carpenter Racing Scuderia Corsa Chevy, clocked the fastest lap without the aid of a tow, 224.542 mph.

Rookie Colton Herta topped the Honda contingent, fifth overall at 228.284 mph in the No. 88 GESS Capstone entry for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Two midday hours were set aside for rookie orientation and non-regular veteran refreshers. Practice is scheduled to continue through Friday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (ET), with a livestream on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Saturday’s first day of qualifying will decide the first 30 spots in the field and will stream live on INDYCAR Pass starting at 11 a.m., with NBC Sports Network picking up coverage at 5 p.m. 

The second qualifying day on Sunday, broadcast live from noon-3 p.m. on NBC, will feature the Last Row Shootout to establish the final three grid spots, followed by the Fast Nine Shootout to determine the pole-sitter and starting order of the first three rows of three. 

The 103rd Indianapolis 500 will be run on Sunday, May 26. NBCSN will offer pre-race coverage at 9 a.m., with NBC taking over for its first Indy 500 broadcast at 11 a.m. NBCSN also will air a post-race show beginning at 4 p.m.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 15 2019
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