MONTMELO – Traditionally marking the start of the European season and heralding the arrival of a number of car upgrades, the Spanish Grand Prix is one of the most important races of the year in Formula 1.
However, for one driver, it is perhaps even more poignant. Fernando Alonso returns to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this weekend for his home grand prix, and even though all hopes of a victory in front of his loyal fan base have long been dashed, the McLaren driver knows that this could be a defining race for his season.
Alonso was the first Spanish driver to win a grand prix back in 2003, and clinched back-to-back world titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006. Since then though, he has faced abject disappointment by coming close to the championship on a number of occasions, only to fall short at the final hurdle in 2007, 2010 and 2012. There is a valid argument for him being a five-time champion.
Few drivers are able to capture the spirit of the fans like Alonso. In Spain on Thursday, they were out in their thousands at the track asking for pictures and autographs from their hero ahead of his first Spanish GP race weekend for McLaren.
Barcelona is where the F1 development race really hots up, and for McLaren, it needs to mark a big turnaround in fortunes following its worst ever start to a Formula 1 season.
It has been something of a ‘positive rut’ for McLaren, though. The team expected to struggle since moving away from Mercedes power units at the end of last year and reuniting with Honda, the manufacturer that powered it to eight world titles with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late eighties and early nineties. So long as Mercedes’ focus rightly remained with its works team, McLaren stood little chance of re-finding its former glories and winning world titles. To move forwards, the team had to move back.
And the same was true for Alonso. When he joined Ferrari in 2010, it was supposed to mark the beginning of a golden era for both the driver and the team; it would be Schumacher-esque. Instead, the end result was disappointment, frustration and anger. Their parting was by no means a happy one.
Ferrari wasn’t exactly short of names to replace Alonso, though, snapping up four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull. When the German stood on the top step of the podium in Malaysia five weeks ago, ending a two-year win drought for Ferrari in just his second race for the team, the jury quickly deemed that Alonso had made a huge error leaving when he did.
It is worth noting that the notion of Alonso leaving Ferrari is a tenuous one. It was a mutual parting: Ferrari didn’t want Alonso, and he’d had enough of finishing fifth. Both needed a fresh start in 2015. The new regime at Maranello led by Sergio Marchionne and Maurizio Arrivabene had to remove all of the embers that still burned from the flat-lining operation that existed before.
The rapid improvement of Ferrari’s car is not completely down to the new regime, of course. The SF15-T was not a six-week job by any stretch of imagination. However, the improved atmosphere at the team has undoubtedly come as a result of the changes that were enacted.
Is the grass always greener, though? Did Alonso walk into McLaren expecting the riches of race wins and world championships? Quite simply, he did not. He knew there would be this tough spell, and was pleased with how the team performed at the last race in Bahrain, where he finished 11th.
“I think in Bahrain we had a nice step and that brought us closer to the Q3 cut-off and also to the points, and we need another small step to reach that goal,” he said.
“Obviously it’s not what we want. We want to be on the podium and win races, but one step at at time and hopefully here in Barcelona we can see this step.”
Car quality aside, many believed that Alonso could not possibly make a happy return to McLaren given his disastrous one-year spell at the team back in 2007. The Spaniard arrived as the double world champion, only to be upstaged by then-rookie Lewis Hamilton. The fractured relationship between Alonso and McLaren reached breaking point when he threatened to give email evidence to the FIA in the ‘spygate’ espionage scandal that eventually saw the team get chucked out of the constructors’ championship.
When Alonso left at the end of 2007, a return seemed impossible. However, a weird marriage of convenience has been formed in 2015. McLaren and Alonso are both crestfallen and in need of a revival. Together, they may be able to achieve that.
This fact is not lost on team boss Ron Dennis, who has been full of praise for Alonso in recent weeks amid the team’s struggles. Such support has only boosted Alonso.
“I have been always very lucky to have the support of all my teams and all of my bosses,” Alonso said. “What is important is to be happy with your job – to know and to make sure that your discipline and your professionalism is at the highest level when you are working for a team and that the people who pay you at the end of the month are happy.”
But how long will Alonso be happy to wait for McLaren to get back to the front of the field? One journalist put the question to the Spaniard on Thursday, saying that Eric Boullier, the team’s racing director, claimed the team needed four years.
“Well you know, if I could sign now that in four years I will win, yes – but it is not a guarantee,” Alonso said. “If I can fight for a world championship or not, only time will tell us, but I’m a very happy person so it’s no problem to wait.”
It may have been a hypothetical question, but Alonso’s answer was very telling. He has a three-year deal with the team, and although he is unlikely to be happy to fight outside of the points for three years, it is perhaps unlikely that he would automatically quit if he did not have a title.
Just as Jose Mourinho dubbed himself “the happy one” when he returned to Chelsea FC for a second stint following his acrimonious exit in 2007, Fernando Alonso appears to be doing much the same.
He may not be as successful on track right now than he would have been with Ferrari, but he is clearly far happier and prepared for this long-term project to return both himself and McLaren to their former greatness.
Just consider what the 86-year-old billionaire has accomplished last Sunday.
At 12:40 p.m. last Sunday, Penske greeted the massive crowd of 330,000 spectators at the 107th Indianapolis 500 and gave the command, “Drivers, Start Your Engines” to begin the big race. Since 2019, Penske has been the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar.
Over three hours later, Penske was standing on top of the Pagoda, the massive suite and command post of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the dramatic conclusion of the Indy 500 with his wife, Kathy, son Greg, Penske Corp. marketing director Jonathan Gibson, and Penske Corp. president Bud Denker.
When Penske saw his driver, Josef Newgarden, cross the start/finish line as the winner, he thrust his left fist in the air in an enthusiastic fashion and celebrated with his closest associates.
“I’m up on the very top of the Pagoda and I have a screen up there with all the times of every (Team Penske) car, each lap and I have a TV and a radio that I can’t talk (to the teams) on,” Penske said. “I can go from the channels of 2 (Newgaren), 3 (Scott McLaughlin) or 12 (Will Power) just listening to where we are.
“I have my own idea to what I might have done, but when I heard (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric say we had to take our time, when he said we were on plan at 100 laps, we were actually ahead of where we wanted to be. They were saving fuel, to be in the right window, which was right on.
“It was amazing when you think about all of the things that happened. If we didn’t have that wreck on the front straightaway, it would have been different.
“It’s a crazy place. It’s rewarding. That’s why we are here to race.”
In addition to owning the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske is also the winningest car owner in Indy 500 history and Sunday’s win was a record-extending 19th win in the 500-Mile Race.
It was the first time Penske, the car owner, won the Indy 500 since Penske, the track owner, officially took over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Jan. 6, 2020.
With the purchase, he also put some professional distance between himself and Team Penske after calling strategy in the race for many years.
“After you have been on your face for three of four years qualifying here, it’s nice to be up again,” Penske said. “We won nine races last year, won the championship and qualified in the back half of the field. Then we came back here this year, and we worked so hard.
“Guys have better ideas than we do. You have to hand it to them. The cars are legal, I’m sure. Rocket (IndyCar technical director Kevin Blanch) and those guys aren’t going to let that happen and we don’t want it to happen.
“We have to figure out what the magic is so we can be up front at the beginning (of the Indy 500).
“You have to take the good with the bad. You have to eat crow when you have to eat crow. I’ve had good days and bad days, but the good news is we are the same team whether we win or whether we lose and that is the most important thing.
“We are committed.”
Penske was still celebrating in Victory Lane when the placard that designates his parking spot (between the Pagoda and IMS media center) was changed from “18” to “19” to signify the number of times he has won the Indianapolis 500.
“He was hoping to get to 19, and it happened,” Penske’s son, Greg, who is the Vice Chairman of the Penske Corporation told NBC Sports. “It was special for our whole team, our family, and our 70,000-plus team members around the world. And our partners. Shell, in its first race to win with renewable fuel and it happened to be their car. They have been such a great partner over the years.
“That was so exciting to see that all come together as one team.
“It’s always a great feeling to wake up and say, ‘Man, we did this as a team, and we did this together.’
“Now, we move on to Detroit and move forward. Bud Denker and the team, it will be exciting over there, too.”
On Monday night, Penske attended the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis. About 565 miles away, Penske’s NASCAR Cup Series team was competing in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I watched it until I had to go to the banquet,” Penske said Thursday morning in Detroit. “Then I had my iPhone sitting on the table there.
“With 50 laps to go, I didn’t know who to watch or what to watch while I was at the (Indianapolis 500) banquet.”
One of Penske’s NASCAR drivers, Ryan Blaney, went on to win the Coca-Cola 600.
It was yet another first for Penske – the first time he won the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year. The only reason it wasn’t in the same day is because the NASCAR race had been rained out and rescheduled for the following day.
The accomplishment, however, remains impressive.
“That’s what we are here for, to set goals for other people to try to achieve,” Penske said. “The 19th win at Indianapolis was long overdue when you think about the past. It was a great race. It could have been anybody’s race.
“We were able to execute at the right time.”
Penske enjoyed more success in 24 hours than most team owners or businessmen would experience in a season, or even in a career.
But Penske immediately switched his focus to this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. The NTT IndyCar Series race is the first time this event has been contested on the streets of downtown Detroit since 1991 and is a massive undertaking.
There isn’t anything too big that Roger Penske and his team can’t accomplish, however.
“The good news is we have great weather, and we will be able to showcase the people in the city that don’t normally get a chance to go to the race at Belle Isle in the past can get a chance to come here and see what is going on,” Penske said Thursday. “The economic benefit for the city is going to be terrific.
“Mike Montri, Bud Denker and Chevrolet and the whole team, what they have put together here is an amazing job. Knowing what it takes to start fresh in a city on the city streets is amazing.”
Moving the race from Belle Isle, its home since 1992, back to the streets of Detroit is a massive undertaking, but Penske said it was time to leave the Island.
“We had a lot of noise from people because we were taking Belle Isle, a place where a lot of constituents in Detroit have weddings and things like that,” Penske said. “We cleaned up the island.
“We are going to make this a big event by coming to downtown Detroit. With the support of GM and ourselves, it was a home run.
“Last week, when the mayor of Detroit and the city council took down the 25 mph street signs and put up 200 mph, that was the day when I knew that we had made it.”
Win the Indianapolis 500 win on Sunday, the Coca-Cola 600 victory on Monday and then turning downtown Detroit into a street course and stage the race this weekend, it would be easy to expect Penske to take a break afterward.
He will be off to Le Mans for the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans Sports Car race June 10-11 with Porsche Penske Motorsport aiming for an overall victory with its 963 hybrid prototype.
“We want to win Le Mans, that is what we would like to do,” Penske said. “We have three good cars. It’s going to be competitive. The Balance of Performance, we’ll see how that works. They made some changes, but right now, I’m sure the Toyotas have the edge.
“Just to go there and compete this first year with Porsche is something we have wanted to do for a long time. It’s a quality brand, a long-term contract so we can build on it this year.”
Penske and his son Greg are constantly looking forward, instead of taking too much time to celebrate their successes.
But both men realize what a huge success last week’s Indianapolis 500 was from both a competitive and business standpoint.
“After being stewards of the place here and all the hard work that everyone has put in and the team, what they have done to get back to winning, it was exciting,” Greg Penske told NBC Sports. “We had a lot of competition. Probably the best competition we’ve ever had to race against.
“It was exciting. To be up there and see the move Josef made and how they raced. It was quite a finish for the fans and for everybody.
“Great news. No one left. It was nice to see everyone staying and they wanted to see a great finish. That was exciting.
“It was exciting for everybody.”
The massive crowd of 330,000 fans was the largest to watch the Indianapolis 500 since 350,000 fans attended the sold-out 100th running in 2016.
It serves as proof of what can be done when people such as Penske and his staff get out and promote the event.
“The Indy 500 has always been a spectacular event,” Greg Penske said. “People want to come. It’s Americana. It’s amazing when you take a look at it. The people that came here from 50 different countries and all around the world.
“There is nothing like it. To get this many people to come in, but it’s still one guest at a time. That is something that is really important to us. Every experience is a good one. We have to keep working on that. I’m sure there will be opportunities for us to execute and get even better.”
The day after the Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske spoke to a small group of reporters during the annual Indianapolis 500 victory photo shoot at the Yard of Bricks.
He emphasized it wasn’t just the size of the crowd, it was also the changing face of those in attendance.
“That was some crowd,” he said. “And it was real.
“Owning the track is something we have done over the years. When (former IMS owner) Tony George came, I didn’t realize when I said yes, what I was really signing up for.
“What we signed up for was to make it better and make it a place where everybody wants to come and have fun. The demographics, so many kids coming out here with their families.
“I stood out at Turn 3 here earlier in the week and watched those cars go into Turn 3 at 240 miles an hour and to think you can go out there for $45 with your kids and watch it. It costs me more than that to go to a movie in Detroit than to sit out there.
“This is what we have to do. It’s generational. People come here. They want to keep their tickets. If we can make it fun and exciting as it was yesterday at the end, not many people left. It was amazing that not many people left.”
Penske is involved in all aspects of his business. He revealed that he used helicopters to take overhead shots of the crowd before and after the race to help improve crowd control in future Indianapolis 500s.
“We had a helicopter every half hour from 7:30 a.m. on taking pictures so we could sit down as a team and look exactly how the place filled up and how it was at closing,” Penske explained. “We can look at where we had pinch points. That’s the most important thing, to make it easier to get in and easier to get out.
“Over in the Snake Pit, there are some things we can do where people can sit on the mounds.
“We had two screens on the back straightaway that were temporary. I want to put a big screen on the back of the grandstands coming off Turn 4 – a big one – so that when you are on the viewing mounds, you can see. Those are the things we have to do and that will only make it a better experience and to grow it.
“I don’t want to take any credit for filling it up. What we are doing is trying to take a product that took 106 years to build into what it is. All we are trying to do is sustain it and bring it up to the current standards from the standpoint of expectations. Whether it’s you as a family or kid, it’s whatever you have.
“That’s how we run our business.
“No risk, no reward. It was great.”
Penske has taken plenty of risks during his career, but he is calculated with every move that he takes when guiding his race team, or his business empire.
That is why he is able to enjoy the tremendous rewards that come with his success.
“Every victory for us and for the team and for my father, what he has been able to build over the years, it is exciting for all of us,” Greg Penske admitted. “He feels the same way.
“Being on top of the podium, as we all know, never gets old. But it takes execution, and it takes hard work.
“The teams here and how they commit to be here and make sure we are successful; I’ve never seen it so competition. Think about qualifying being 14 inches over 10 miles. That’s a pretty close margin.
“It’s always exciting. For him to continue to drive and to work the way he does is pretty amazing.
“I’ve had a front row seat for that and I’m very excited to be a part of it.”