Alonso’s Crown Quest Is Underway In Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 13 2020

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso may be taking his last shot at winning racing’s Triple Crown this month at Indy. (Photo courtesy of Arrow McLaren)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fernando Alonso’s bid to qualify for and win the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 looms as the Spaniard’s last-best chance to complete his relentless quest for auto racing’s Triple Crown.

Alonso’s one-off ride at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month as senior member of Arrow McLaren SP’s three-car Indy 500 team figures to be his final NTT IndyCar Series start until at least 2023. That’s because the two-time Formula One World Driving Champion will return to the FIA’s globetrotting series with Renault beginning in 2021 as teammate to Frenchman Esteban Ocon.

Announced on July 8, Alonso’s deal with Renault ended a 20-month hiatus from F1. Alonso will become the first driver to log three separate stints with a single F1 team, having raced for Renault between 2003-06 (when he won his two world titles), 2008-09 and now from 2021-22.

Alonso, 39, is attempting to join Great Britain’s Graham Hill as the only drivers to complete the Triple Crown of victories in F1’s Monaco Grand Prix, sports car racing’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indy 500. A win on Aug. 23 in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has become the object of Alonso’s famed focus. 

“I think I approach the race knowing the next two years is going to be impossible to come,” Alonso said during a news conference previewing Wednesday’s opening day of practice. “I will have to miss qualifying weekend if I wanted to do so. I will not be any more with McLaren next year in F1. That will not work either. I know at least for two years I will not be here.

“Look, this is the way it is at the moment. I’m here ready to enjoy the event, ready to give my best and help the team as much as I can. Let’s see in the future what are the possibilities. If you eventually win one day the race, maybe that opens the possibility for different things.”

Zak Brown, McLaren Racing’s CEO, said Alonso is “dedicated as ever” in his desire to win the Indy 500. “I think that his getting back to Formula 1 next year will mean that potentially this is the last time he has to win the Indy 500 in the near future,” Brown reiterated. “Therefore, he’s never wavered during this time of COVID _ is the race on, off, what date? He cleared his calendar post Paris-Dakar to come compete and hopefully win the Indy 500. He’s been very focused on that.”

Fernando Alonso came up disappointingly short a year ago.

Alonso electrified the racing world as an Indy 500 rookie in 2017, leading 27 laps in an Andretti Autosport Honda before retiring with 20 laps remaining due to an engine problem. Alonso also is looking for redemption after being bumped out of the field last year in a McLaren/Chevrolet prepared at the McLaren Technology Centre in England. Alonso was unceremoniously booted when Kyle Kaiser of fledgling Juncos Racing posted a four-lap/10-mile qualifying run 0.019-mph faster than Alonso’s.

McLaren since has partnered with veteran INDYCAR team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson in a fulltime collaboration featuring a pair of prized rookies _ Floridian Oliver Askew, 23, and Pato O’Ward, 21, of Mexico.

“Yeah, it makes a difference the team itself, how Arrow SP is well-prepared, the experience in the series,” Alonso said. “Is going to be a big difference compared to last year that we were not prepared enough for the challenge.

“I’m with reasonable confidence that there’s going to be a good event for us. But we take it step-by-step. We know there are a lot of things to do from our side. We will miss some experience. All three drivers, we’re rookies for the 500. We need to rely and we need to work very close to the team and learn every day, concentrate a little bit more on the race this year.”

INDYCAR on Tuesday released a list of 33 official entries _ a number guaranteeing each team a starting spot in the traditional field. Originally scheduled to be run on May 24 during the Memorial Day weekend, the race was moved to the “Month of August” by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alonso’s most recent in-car competition was logged during the Paris-Dakar Rally in January. He has continued to train in a simulator at home and has been an eager participant in eSports events, including virtual versions of the Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

“Has been long time, yes, without sitting in a (real) race car,” Alonso said. “But I think everybody is struggling with that. We were missing our race cars even if you are on a normal drive or just one event driver. I don’t think that I have a huge disadvantage there. Physically, I’ve been training a lot. I’ve been a little bit sick March, April. Yeah, I used that time to get recover well and have a lot of bicycle and gym, try to do things on the lockdown.

“Then on the preparation, on the challenge, I don’t think that is more difficult than Dakar because that was a completely unknown territory for me. Every kilometer is new. You have to adapt to different things that obviously I was completely rookie. Here I have disadvantage, yes, compared to the others. I’m not as experienced as some others. I know that. But this race is so special that sometimes the place choose who is going to win that Sunday.

“I’m confident that we do things well, maybe luck goes to our side this time. There are many factors here, many yellows, many things that may happen in the race that are out of your control. So you have to be there. I think the Indy 500 is such a special race that you have to keep trying because eventually one day you will get everything right.”

Fernando Alonso is hoping luck is on his side at Indy. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

James Hinchcliffe emerged atop the speed chart at the close of Wednesday’s Day 1 practice, leading a strong effort for Andretti Autosport. The 2016 Indy 500 pole-sitter, Hinchcliffe toured the 2.5-mile oval in 40.0844-seconds/224.526 mph in the No. 29 Genesys Honda. That lap came with the aid of an aerodynamic tow, as drivers adjusted to the revolutionary new Aeroscreen cockpit safety device.

The popular “Hinch,” a native of Canada, was one of three Andretti Autosport drivers in the top four, while each of the top four drivers were powered by Honda twin-turbocharged V-6 engines.

On cue, Alonso was the top Chevrolet-powered driver, rounding out the top five at 223.238 mph in the No. 66 Ruoff Arrow McLaren SP entry.

Brown said Alonso will remain the least of his concerns as practice ramps-up before this weekend’s qualifications. “Yeah, Fernando, as we all know, is an immense talent,” Brown said. “I’ve not seen someone more prepared to go motor racing. Talked to Fernando earlier. He knows he needs to be there at the end. I think he’ll take quite a methodical approach as he does to the race, be well-prepared. I don’t have any concerns over Fernando’s ability to step-in and get with the program.”

The subject of overwhelming media and fan interest during his previous two visits to IMS, Alonso said he was disappointed to learn this year’s race will be contested without fans in the massive grandstands.

“Yeah, for me it’s going to be the first race with empty grandstands,” Alonso said. “I know the guys have been racing lately with no fans. It’s going to be a shock I’m sure on race day. I think it was the magic part of the 500 _ the fans around the garages _ the interaction you have with them. I will miss a lot that part.

“Probably my life outside the car will be a little bit easier so I don’t need to run away. Sometimes I can go to the bathroom with no tight phone cameras pointed at me. Apart of that, I think when you close the visor and you are racing, it will be the same pressure. We will put a good show on television where we will make somehow big thanks to the fans and celebrate with them even on a distance.”

Brown and the proud and storied management at McLaren are eager to erase the embarrassing failure to qualify Fernando for the 2019 event. “We got bit pretty hard last year,” Brown said. “Yeah. I think the biggest lesson we learned is don’t do what we did last year. I don’t want to rehash, but there were a lot of mistakes that you 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.

“Really it was a lot of little mistakes, predictable. Saw a lot of them, unfortunately didn’t kind of react fast enough, that ultimately compound. If I look at the end result, it really started with our first test, which we have a variety of issues we should have had enough time to be well-prepared for. Then when we had these issues, we didn’t respond to them quickly enough, urgently enough.

“When you don’t solve those issues, you continue to have them, a car gets crashed, you don’t have your spare ready for a variety of reasons, all of which has been documented. There’s an explanation behind each one went wrong, but we got it wrong.

“I think teaming up with Sam and Ric and the team, a lot of these rookie mistakes we made…they’re a well-prepared, especially oval experienced, INDYCAR team. I think that’s the biggest mistake we made, is we came collectively almost as a bunch of rookies and that didn’t work well. I think we’ve come in in a much better way, long-term view to the sport. That’s what we’re doing differently, without getting into the finer details of each item.”

In addition to Schmidt and Brown, McLaren’s INDYCAR brain trust includes Taylor Kiel, managing director, and 2003 Indy 500 champion Gil de Ferran, sporting director.

“This (race) is an epic 104-year history,” Schmidt said. “We have to have it. It’s part of our blood. It’s what makes it breathe. This race is the reason I’m here as a team owner, period.”

De Ferran, who won the Indy 500 driving for new IMS owner Roger Penske, described the partnership between Schmidt-Peterson and McLaren as “a huge amount of effort from people on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly, putting two very diverse groups of people together, there is a lot. I think we need to learn about each other. We knew that from the beginning. We got to be humble. We got to realize that we got a lot of very strong competitors here. Just keep our heads down, our feet to the ground, tackle these next few days here in practice one-by-one.”

DeFerran said McLaren’s specific contribution to the partnership is its depth of engineering. “Ultimately we have a lot of systems and technologies that have been developed over many decades across in the UK,” de Ferran said. “I think a lot of these technologies are also applicable to frankly any form of motorsports, but particularly here in INDYCAR.”

Brown added McLaren has provided a strong handful of fully dedicated, 100 percent INDYCAR personnel that occupy their own space at the MTC. “When we first came (to IMS) in ’17, we teamed up with Michael (Andretti),” Brown said. “Other than a little bit of influence from the team, primarily from Gil from a relationship, Michael ran that effort. We feel like we’re definitely much more hands-on in this effort, which is great.

“We’re racers. We want to go racing. Have a lot of people over there with a variety of accents, primarily British. It will be good. I’m looking forward to seeing it all, as I’ve not been to an INDYCAR race yet. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it live myself.”


Thirty-two of 33 drivers assigned to cars turned laps Wednesday during six-and-a-half hours of track time. Practice opened with a virtual green flag via video from 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, who was celebrating his 87th birthday at his home near Los Angeles. Ben Hanley was the only driver not on track during the regular sessions.

Track activity was divided into a veteran practice, Rookie Orientation Program and veteran refresher tests, and a final practice for all cars. Drivers combined to turn 2,444 incident-free laps, with Marcus Ericsson completing a session-high 129 laps in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

All five rookies in the field _ including McLaren’s Askew and O’Ward; Dalton Kellett, Alex Palou and Rinus VeeKay _ completed the ROP. Seven of eight drivers required to take veteran refresher tests completed their mandatory laps, with Hanley scheduled to attempt his refresher on Thursday.

Practice is scheduled to continue from 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (EDT) Thursday, with live coverage on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.

Cars will receive increased turbocharger boost for the “Fast Friday” practice in preparation for Crown Armed Forces Qualifying Weekend on Saturday and Sunday, when the starting grid is determined. NBC’s live Indy 500 broadcast is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. (EDT) on Aug. 23, with the green flag flying at 2:30 p.m.


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 13 2020
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