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Gutierrez placed under microscope in Mid-Ohio final restart

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Esteban Gutierrez’s first season in the Verizon IndyCar Series has featured a number of stories. But in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the young Mexican driver was highlighted under the microscope in a race situation for the first time of note this year, perhaps for the wrong reasons.

On the first and only restart from a full-course caution on Lap 71, race leader Josef Newgarden had Gutierrez as a buffer between himself and second-placed Will Power, and third-placed Graham Rahal.

Gutierrez was a lap down and understandably was keen to get his lap back, although at such a late stage of the race, even if he got back on the lead lap would have likely struggled to make up enough time for a result.

Anyway, Newgarden got the jump but Gutierrez pushed him on the run to Turn 4 from the restart line. He got close enough to the race leader to make it interesting, but not close enough to overtake. He had gotten close enough to where Power and Rahal were held up in the process of pursuing Newgarden, and with fresher and softer Firestone red alternate tires versus Newgarden’s harder primary Firestone blacks, the second- and third-placed drivers’ potential tire advantage was negated.

After the race, INDYCAR officials met with Gutierrez and the Dale Coyne Racing team for further discussions about whether there was a call to go for it or how it played out.

It’s a dilemma because by the INDYCAR rulebook, Gutierrez had every right to make the attempt to pass to get back on the lead lap, and it’s also a smart play by Coyne to ensure the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda – otherwise running outside the top-15 despite Gutierrez qualifying a season-best 12th – got some quality air time on NBCSN. But by the unwritten rules of racing, there’s a gentlemen’s agreement in place to not impact the battle for the lead if you’re a lapped car.

“Well, I honestly tried!” Gutierrez told NBC Sports after the race. “It was tricky there. We were in a good position and going well with a good pace. Obviously we wanted to get on the lead lap, and we tried, but we didn’t get there.”

He’d lost the lap earlier in the race owing to a front wing issue and Gutierrez called it a “miscommunication” on the first pit stop.

Race winner Newgarden described the dilemma from his vantage point. It helped him in the long run, and he said Gutierrez didn’t do anything wrong, but added that he’d have felt aggrieved if he was in Power or Rahal’s shoes.

“The only real drama was the restart, as it felt like we were on the wrong tire again, kind of like Road America,” Newgarden said. “Fortunately, we had a bit of a buffer, even with the car in between. Even there, I thought Gutierrez was going to run into us on Turn 4 for a second, but we seemed to skate through.”

Newgarden said his race strategist, Tim Cindric, said to expect Gutierrez to try a move on the restart.

“Tim even said something. Tim was like, ‘Hey, you need to watch out. Gutierrez is on red tires. He’s probably going to try and be a hero getting his lap back here,’ which was not the thing to do, I don’t think, in that situation when you’re on the last stint. I mean, you’re not going to really be able to do much getting your lap back,” Newgarden said.

“So I was talking to the guys. I talked to Rahal and Will about it. It’s probably something we need to address again. We’ve had this discussion about lap cars before. We probably need to have a discussion about how we handle it again with just the procedure. Per the rules, he has every right to actually try and pass me. It’s not against the rules. It’s not against what we do right now in IndyCar. So there’s really nothing wrong that he did, but is that the right procedure to have? I don’t know anymore.

“It didn’t end bad. It was all fine. He’s a talented driver. He’s been in a lot of series. I think he handled it fine, and there’s nothing that bad that came out of it. Fortunately, we don’t have to talk about something like that.”

Newgarden and Gutierrez had raced each other before IndyCar in the 2010 GP3 Series season (a field that also featured fellow 2017 IndyCar drivers Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens, among other notables), but with this only Gutierrez’s sixth IndyCar start, it’s worth wondering whether he was accustomed to the unofficial IndyCar “rules of engagement.”

“That’s why I felt he would do it because he’s so new here. I thought he would do something like that, where he’s going to try to get his lap back. I tried to get as good a jump as I could and just watched him,” Newgarden said.

“I saw him locked up in my mirror, and I thought, ‘I can’t really go anywhere.’ I left a little bit of room on the inside, not a lot, but I left a little bit just to give him some space. I was just waiting. I was like, he’s either going to hit me or he’s not. And he didn’t. Once we got to the corner, it was just fine.

“But I was expecting it. I was expecting something like that. After we got through that, it actually kind of helped me a little bit going after Will. It was probably a good thing after we got to the start.”

Unsurprisingly, Rahal and Power took a different view of the passing attempt, although Power agreed with Newgarden that Gutierrez wasn’t really to blame for going for it.

“I think we need to have a talk behind closed doors with the drivers,” Rahal lamented. “I would say Gutierrez was damn close to taking out the leader. I’m sure you saw it. That’s just ridiculous, honestly. We’ll talk about it behind closed doors. I think everybody needs a little bit of a shakeup here with just the respect between drivers, but we’ll go from there.

“I mean, I always get told I’m a whiner when I talk about those sorts of things. I’ll let Will talk about it.”

Power replied, “It’s actually not Gutierrez’s fault. The rules for IndyCar are kind of ridiculous, that the team would tell him to stay and push and he’s not even in the lead. He’s not even leading. I understand if he was ahead of Newgarden because then, if it goes yellow, he gets his lap back.

“Yeah, I mean, IndyCar on one hand wants really good racing, but then you put a bunch of backmarkers, people a lap down in the mix. It ruined probably a very good battle at the end because Josef was on black tires and we were on reds.”

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes many legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcend into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on Dec. 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”


With so many obstacles in the way of Alonso competing for any other team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best (and essentially his only) option come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” Brown said in a response to a question from NBCSports.com in a Tuesday teleconference. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso, and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after (the Dakar Rally) because he wanted to be very focused on that event. had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda in 2017. He got up to speed quickly, qualifying fifth and leading 27 laps before his Honda failed with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso’s worst days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux pas was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over because of disparaging and critical comments about its engine by Alonso and the team.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what then was known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. To make the deal work, the team had to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

When the Arrow McLaren SP deal was announced on Aug. 9, 2019, Alonso still was attempting to negotiate an Indy 500 deal with Andretti Autosport, and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed, and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no and held firm against doing business with Alonso for the same reasons as with McLaren.

Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver.”


Though it appeared this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized they had been wooing Alonso for several months.

The addition of Hampson, who oversaw a car Bourdais qualified for the Fast Nine in the past two Indy 500s, and a solid test at COTA helped make the case.

“These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump,” Brown said. “There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Said Schmidt: “It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November. We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal.”

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports — the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Having conquered Monaco and Le Mans, Indy remains the final event to master for the Spaniard.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. There are four corners but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

The key to completing the deal was Michael Andretti allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to follow Alonso as his Indy 500 sponsor to Arrow McLaren SP after the deal with Andretti Autosport fell through.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown said, referring to the Virgin Australia Supercars team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them.”

Alonso is just as excited to return at Indy despite last year’s disappointment, gleefully describing the Brickyard’s appeal in his interview with Diffey.

“Definitely. once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500