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.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”