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: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

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