McLaren’s already difficult offseason unaided by its handling of Alonso story

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This wasn’t the way it was supposed to begin, this new era of McLaren and Honda.

The mathematical equation of parts was supposed to read: Alonso return + Button remains + Honda revival = success.

It may still end that way, but it’s going to take longer than anticipated to get there.

Along the way the on-time announcements, clarity and precision got lost, and the team heads into the 2015 Formula 1 season in a nightmarish world of hurt that is almost entirely self-inflicted.

“Delay” was the word best used to describe the team’s wait to confirm its driver lineup, which wasn’t officially revealed to the world until mid-December.

“Unreliability” is the word best used to describe a, frankly, brutal testing period of 12 days across Jerez and Barcelona. Only on Friday of the second Barcelona test and third overall – day 10 of 12 in the period – did one of its drivers complete 100 laps.

Some of the culprits that halted running the other days: loss of cooling water pressure, oil level, fuel-related spark/ignition issue, MGU-K seal break, accident, hydraulic leak and oil leak.

Granted, the new Honda power unit is about at the point of development where the new Mercedes, Renault and Ferraris were last year in the development cycle as a new engine. But still, given its pedigree for reliability and the hope of wanting to get the kinks out earlier rather than later, it’s been no doubt a drain on the team to be spending so much of the already little available testing time in the garage rather than on circuit.

And lastly, “confusion” has been the word best used to describe the messaging and communications from the team in the interim since Alonso’s accident on the fourth day of the first Barcelona test.

This hasn’t helped in what’s already been a challenging offseason, and it’s frequently left more questions than answers.

Here are the respective wordings from McLaren’s official releases, in order, since Alonso’s accident with regards to his condition from the accident:

  • Sunday, February 22: “Unfortunately, we were unable to complete the day’s programme after Fernando suffered an accident at Turn Three just before lunchtime. Although conscious, and able to speak with the circuit’s medical team, he was flown to a nearby hospital, where he was given CT and MRI scans as precautionary measures. He was uninjured, but will remain in hospital overnight.”
  • Monday, February 23: Fernando Alonso is making a solid recovery in hospital, and is chatting to family, friends and hospital staff.From the scene of the incident he was driven to the circuit’s medical centre, where he was given first aid and, as per normal procedures, was sedated in preparation for an air-lift to hospital.In hospital a thorough and complete analysis of his condition was performed, involving CT scans and MRI scans, all of which were completely normal.In order to provide the privacy and tranquillity required to facilitate a peaceful recuperation, he is being kept in hospital for further observation, and to recover from the effects of the medication that successfully managed his routine sedation yesterday.We intend to give him every opportunity to make a rapid and complete recovery, and will evaluate in due course whether or not he will participate in the next Barcelona test.
  • Wednesday, February 25: Following his testing accident at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya last Sunday, we are pleased to confirm that Fernando Alonso has now left hospital. He has returned to his family’s home in Spain for further rest and recuperation.

The confusion really began to occur once Ron Dennis spoke on Thursday, February 26, to assembled reporters in Barcelona to attempt to clear the air. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith was among them.

Dennis said during the press session that Alonso was knocked unconscious, but not concussed:

“If you then ask the question why he was in the hospital for three days, it’s because there was a period of unconsciousness. It was relatively short.

“He is devoid of all injuries,” Dennis said. “We can categorically say he has no injury. We can categorically say he didn’t suffer an electric shock. We can categorically say that, we believe, the car did not fail. Everything after that becomes subjective.”

“He’s not even concussed. The technical definition of a concussion is that you can see it in a scan. The possibility is that the change of direction happened so fast that actually it was like – it’s inappropriate to use the word – a whiplash of the brain. It didn’t actually touch anything. It didn’t bruise, it didn’t bleed.

“I’m not trying to conceal anything. I’m just telling you the facts: he is physically perfect. There is no concussion.”

That prompted even more questions, including from former F1 medical delegate Gary Hartstein, who immediately dismissed Dennis’ assertion that Alonso was not concussed:

Hartstein’s additional thoughts can be viewed both on his Twitter account (@former_F1doc) and blog which was short, sweet and to the point.

Finally today we have word from McLaren that Alonso, who spent three nights in hospital after the accident, was concussed, which is contrary to Dennis’ assertion he wasn’t.

“Fernando Alonso’s doctors have informed him that they find him asymptomatic of any medical issue; that they see no evidence whatsoever of any injury; and that they therefore describe him as entirely healthy from neurological and cardiac perspectives alike.

“However, Fernando’s doctors have recommended to him that, following the concussion he sustained in a testing accident at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22nd, for the time being he should seek to limit as far as is possible any environmental risk factors that could potentially result in his sustaining another concussion so soon after his previous one, so as to minimise the chances of second impact syndrome, as is normal medical procedure when treating athletes after concussions.”

Head injuries – how they are being treated and how athletes recover from them – are looked at in a different light now by sporting organizations compared to how they were even four or five years ago.

In recent years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (NASCAR) ruled himself out of competing after a concussion; Dario Franchitti (IndyCar) was forced to retire after sustaining one.

James Hinchcliffe, who sustained a concussion at IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis a year ago, also questioned how the story has evolved:

This is F1’s first major concussion story of note in the new era of concussion protocol, and like in NASCAR and IndyCar, it’s affecting one of the championship’s best drivers.

While in both Earnhardt and Franchitti’s cases, the communication was swift, precise and left no doubt about whether the driver was concussed, this has been a case study in how challenging things can be if the communication is mishandled.

It’s odd too, because McLaren is usually renowned for its precision and clarity. But this has been bungled from the outset, and it’s only added to the frustration because no one really seems to know what is going on.

All we do know is that Alonso is out of the Australian Grand Prix, and shouldn’t rush to get back before Malaysia, and risk another potential concussion.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”