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From Bahrain to Barber: Alonso set to head Stateside for Indy prep

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Despite another valiant effort to get into points-scoring contention in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso and his McLaren Honda once again came up short, again courtesy of another engine issue in the back of his car.

Alonso was distraught despite his efforts Sunday, where his battles with Jolyon Palmer’s Renault and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso in particular stood out despite the power deficit at his disposal. The Spaniard entered the pit lane with just two laps remaining in the 57-lap race to mark his third failure to finish, and second within the final five laps, in three races this season.

“It was so frustrating!” Alonso lamented to NBCSN’s Will Buxton after the race. “We have a big straight line speed deficit. On the straights we lost so much ground. We were close to the points at parts of the race but we never had the pace as China or Australia. We need to keep improving to be better in Russia. The power is quite important in Russia. We know the weakness of the package.”

Of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne’s inability to even start the race, Alonso responded, “This weekend he had so much bad luck. When you can’t even start the races, it’s amazing.”

But the second Buxton shifted the topic to Indianapolis in May, Alonso’s otherwise dour facial expression turned into a big ‘ol smile.

His upcoming trip to Birmingham, Ala. later this week will be the start of his process over the next few weeks to prepare for his Indianapolis 500 debut, in the McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport jointly entered car.

Alonso confirmed his trip to Barber during Wednesday’s pre-Bahrain Grand Prix teleconference with international reporters:

“Yeah, the program is still not yet defined. Still some conversations about this possibility of testing in the simulator either in Italy or in Indianapolis, together also with some seat fitting that is required in Indianapolis in Andretti’s factory. Yeah, let’s even talk about some possibility of testing the car before the three practice.

“As I said, still very open. The only one thing that is confirmed is that I will attend to the race next weekend in Alabama. Is not an oval, but I will go there to see the race behind the scenes and have the first touch with the team, to have a great atmosphere when Indy comes. Yeah, try to learn as much as possible and maybe have the help from someone or ex-drivers, like a coach or something, you know, to have as many conversations as possible in these couple of weeks.”

Alonso expanded on that during his post-race interview with Buxton on Sunday.

“Yeah I’m looking forward to it. From tomorrow, we’ll start … being in contact with Andretti’s team. Hopefully on the weekend we can see some action, meet the guys and prepare for the 500.”

There’s going to be a lot of Alonso-to-Indy stories to come over the next few weeks. Obviously, there’s going to be his arrival to Birmingham, a place fellow F1 veteran Max Chilton has hailed as “pristine” and how he takes in the environment.

Then there’s the seat fitting, the possible simulator work, and the potential of his first test day at Indianapolis separate from the rookie orientation program on Monday, May 15.

Alonso still has two more Grands Prix before the two weeks of action between that Monday and the race on Sunday, May 28. The Russian Grand Prix is next on April 30 and then Alonso will head home to Spain for the start of the traditional European races with the Spanish Grand Prix from May 14.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).