Smith: Alonso’s Indy 500 chance proof of change in McLaren’s mindset

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Tomorrow morning, I’m likely to roll out of bed, shower, get dressed, make some breakfast, and then realize that today actually happened.

Fernando Alonso will actually race in the 101st Indianapolis 500 for McLaren.

Days like this come a handful of times each in motorsport. The most recent one was Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement just five days after he claimed his maiden F1 world title in Abu Dhabi. The tremors from the earthquake it caused in racing continued to be felt through the entire winter; for Mercedes, most probably through the whole 2017 season.

Alonso’s news today had a similar effect. It sent motorsport media into hyperdrive, scrambling for every detail going and hastily jumping onto calls and into press conferences with the parties involved to work out just how such a historic deal came to be.

But now we know the details, we can really begin to look at the impact and effect of Alonso’s decision. Just what does Alonso’s presence in the Indy 500 mean for F1? For McLaren? For IndyCar? For racing as a whole.

For F1 and IndyCar, it marks a rare opportunity for both to get some headlines in one fell swoop. Alexander Rossi’s debut success at the 100th running of the ‘500 last year did the trick, but to have one of F1’s biggest stars to rock up at America’s biggest races is a game-changer for all involved.

But what does it mean for McLaren, the team that has agreed to let its star driver miss the Monaco Grand Prix, F1’s most visible and celebrated race, to go and race in a car he’s never driven before against an entirely different grid?

Today’s announcement was the biggest chunk of proof thus far that McLaren’s mindset has changed dramatically in the last six months. It is quickly becoming a very different team from the one that Ron Dennis presided over for more than three decades.

Dennis was instrumental in turning McLaren into the multi-championship-winning operation and successful team and company, creating dynasties with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton. But towards the end of his tenure, it felt like McLaren was stuck reflecting on its past glories instead of trying to build towards new ones. It wasn’t looking outside of the box.

This is where Zak Brown came in. Brown was tipped as being a possible successor for Bernie Ecclestone as F1’s commercial chief, only to be drafted in as McLaren’s new executive director last November. Changes have already been made, with a handful of top staff – Jost Capito and Ekrem Sami for two – leaving, but the bolder statements have not been with personnel.

I called it the ‘de-Ronification process’ at the time, with the biggest diversion from the Dennisian ways being the color and name of the MCL32 for 2017: it was made papaya orange, just like the classic McLarens raced by Bruce McLaren were when he formed the company in the 1960s.

It showed Brown’s willingness to embrace and encourage change, being dynamic in his thinking. And getting Alonso a ride at the Indy 500 is just the latest step in that.

Zak Brown in the garage (Photo by McLaren/LAT)

Things aren’t good for McLaren and Honda right now. The power unit has left Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne brewing with frustration, with the team sitting last in the constructors’ championship after two races.

Yet on Sunday in China, Alonso seemed upbeat, almost happy, despite retiring from the race early on. The fact he’d agreed to race in the Indy 500 less than 24 hours earlier is probably why.

“I’m new to McLaren, getting to know [Alonso]. I had a desire for McLaren to come back to Indianapolis. It is a great part of our history. But we didn’t think the timing would be right to try to put together the effort,” Brown explained.

“We started flirting with Fernando on the topic and he started flirting back. In Australia, we had breakfast with Honda, he stated his desire to race triple crown of Monaco, Indy and Le Mans. He said I’d love to race with Honda at Indianapolis 500.

“We did this with highest degree of secrecy, and had Mark [Miles, Hulman and Co. CEO] fish around. When Mark came back and said there’s a way we can do this with Michael [Andretti], I called Michael directly, at this point it was let’s do this with Michael. Michael went to work. Stefan Wilson has had a bigger picture in the interest of INDYCAR and he must be commended for this. It was a difficult decision for him.

“We had dinner Friday in China and I laid it out on the table, he wants to do it, we think we could make it happen. He told me Saturday morning after sleeping on it ‘I want to do it’.

“We signed it last night from the airport, and here we are announcing it. We could not be more excited to run the McLaren Honda Andretti entry with Fernando Alonso. It’s an incredible day of motorsports.”

Brown has pulled a masterstroke here. Alonso may be missing the Monaco Grand Prix, but let’s face it: he wasn’t going to win it. But he could win the Indy 500 in a McLaren. With support from Andretti Autosport and guidance from Andretti and Eric Bretzman, Alonso is in very, very good hands.

It is the kind of move that would never have happened under Ron Dennis. The very idea of McLaren racing elsewhere besides F1 with a factory interest was rarely discussed, such was the doubt people had. Yet within weeks of Brown arriving, there were already talks about Le Mans and even Formula E. McLaren has an open mind. It is so, so refreshing to see.

The move could also prove instrumental in getting Alonso to further his commitment to the McLaren-Honda project, something that a week ago seemed unlikely, such are the issues faced by the F1 team. Alonso needs a good reason to stay on for 2018, with the promise of progress not being enough.

The promise of further Indy 500 run-outs and – who knows – maybe even a shot at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to try and complete his Triple Crown just might be.

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 08: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 8, 2017 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

“Sometimes you have to seize opportunities and move quickly,” Brown said. “This is something that we had a window of opportunity to do it right. We jumped all over it.

“Between Michael’s team, McLaren, Fernando and Honda, he’s already studying Indianapolis, we have two races, Bahrain and Russia, his head is completely into the Indianapolis 500 and he’ll pick up Canadian Grand Prix. We will attend Barber next weekend. Then we’ll visit Michael’s shop. We’ll get him some simulator time and here we come Indianapolis 500.”

One of those corny motivational posters you see floating about Facebook says that the optimist sees the glass half-full, the pessimist half empty – and while they were arguing, the opportunist drank it. It’s true here with Brown. This is a deal that has moved along supremely quickly, in a matter of days, and Brown made it happen.

Had it been Dennis and the ‘old McLaren’ ways, it would have been a definite no. To have Alonso racing anything but a McLaren would have been unthinkable. The Spaniard’s request to race something else would likely have been vetoed, likely as it reportedly was with Porsche at Le Mans in 2015.

What Brown has done is not only give F1 and IndyCar a huge boost, but also McLaren. People may remember McLaren’s woes with Honda in 2017 for years to come, but it’s more likely to be recalled as ‘that awesome year McLaren went back to the Indy 500 with Fernando Alonso.’

And beneath all of Zak’s decision-making is the fact that he is deep-down a massive fan of both racing and McLaren. When I met him for the first time back in January to interview him for a feature in which I dubbed him ‘The Busiest Man in Motorsports’, he exuded love and passion for the team he was now in charge of, but all with an open mind.

So as well as being the busiest man in motorsports, today’s bombshell gives credence to Brown also being one of the smartest and canniest. Because he has done something that no-one could have seen coming a month or so ago – not even Fernando Alonso.

More strikingly though, Brown has made clear that McLaren is changing and changing fast.

A lick of orange paint can only go so far but if that orange were to return to Victory Lane at the Brickyard on May 28 with Alonso lifting a bottle of full fat milk to celebrate, it would surely go down in motorsport folklore.

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”