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McLaren’s return to Indy 500 with Alonso ‘nerve-racking’

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McLaren made the Indianapolis 500 its personal playground in the 1970s with three victories in 10 appearances. Then the manufacturer was done, back to England with a focus on Formula One and no time for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Fernando Alonso’s quest to win motorsports version of the Triple Crown has sparked a renewed interest in Indy for McLaren, which has entered next month’s race while exploring an eventual full-time entry in IndyCar. McLaren and its trademark papaya orange car will be back on the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday for a test, the first time the team has been an official participant for the 500 since Johnny Rutherford won in 1976.

Alonso had McLaren’s support in his 2017 Indianapolis 500 debut, but he drove for Andretti Autosport and McLaren as a team carried little responsibility.

This May, the entire effort will be from McLaren.

“It’s definitely more nerve-wracking than when we did it with Andretti,” said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, an American and former Indianapolis resident. “Michael did everything and you knew it was going to be a mega car. We’ve started this thing from scratch. We built the cars ourselves, put the team together, and they’re all experienced guys, but we’re rookies.”

It is a tremendous undertaking for McLaren, which desperately does not want to embarrass itself or Alonso. The two-time Formula One champion has wins at Monaco and Le Mans on his resume and adding the 500 would allow him to join Graham Hill as the only drivers to complete the sweep.

A fallout in F1 with engine supplier Honda hurt Brown’s bargaining to get Alonso back with Andretti or another established team, and Roger Penske wasn’t interested in adding the Spaniard to his Chevrolet lineup. But Chevy was willing to give Alonso an engine, so Brown decided McLaren would go ahead and enter Indianapolis on its own.

Brown picked a team of McLaren employees and they built Alonso’s car at their England headquarters and shipped it to Indianapolis for Wednesday’s session. Alonso was on the track earlier this month for a day of testing at Texas Motor Speedway in a different car, built by IndyCar team Carlin as part of a technical alliance McLaren struck to ensure it is properly prepared. That car will be Alonso’s backup next month.

“All the people that are on the (Indy) team put their hand up and said, `I really want to go to Indy,’ so there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” Brown said. “We’re taking it on. We’re doing it ourselves.”

Alonso, following a full day at Texas in which Rutherford was on hand to observe, said he is confident he will have a solid entry from McLaren. He led 27 laps in the Andretti entry in 2017 and might have been in contention to win had his engine not expired 21 laps from the finish.

His previous appearance exposed him to the enormity of the event, and Alonso said he is ready to go.

“I feel quite a lot more prepared. I know the race, the atmosphere of the 500, the drivers’ parade, I know the formation laps. I know a lot of things that you spend energy on your first time there because everything comes as a surprise,” he said. “I think that energy, I can save it now. I know how it goes, so I can go into the rhythm of the race, come into qualifying with a little bit more energy and more concentration.

“I don’t want to take for granted anything. I want to review every single race from the past, start from zero with engineers and everything. I want to make as much preparation as possible.”

The attention will be on Alonso, who captivated the audience and proved to be a popular addition to the field two years ago. But scrutiny will be on McLaren and its preparation for a fulltime IndyCar entry. McLaren announced last week it will enter a sports car in IMSA next season, and Brown believes its deliberate approach has allowed the F1 effort to improve even amid expansion to different series.

“We wouldn’t have gone to the effort we’ve gone in buying equipment and doing what we’re doing if we did not have an intention to get in (IndyCar) at some point,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it’ll be (next year). I think it’s more of a when than an if we all want to do it.”

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).