Alonso, McLaren ‘baffled’ by issues in Indy 500 practice

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INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso was forced to take it slow in order to pass his Indianapolis 500 “Refresher Test” before he was allowed to turn it loose on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on Tuesday.

Alonso easily passed that final phase with 10 laps over 215 mph, but he never got a chance to turn it loose later in the day.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

The two-time Formula One World Champion from Spain was prepared to develop a baseline setup on his car during Tuesday’s “Opening Day” practice session for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

Instead, an electronic issue sent his McLaren Chevrolet back to the Gasoline Alley Garages.

He completed 50 laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval but without full power from his engine, his best lap was 224.162 miles per hour. That was 32nd fastest out of 39 car/driver combinations that turned laps on Tuesday.

Compare that to the fastest speed of the day when defending Indy 500 winner Will Power went 229.745 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet.

There are 36 car/driver combinations entered in the race. The extra three car/driver combination laps came when drivers shook down the race setup for their teammates, such as James Hinchcliffe in the No. 60 Honda for Jack Harvey at Meyer Shank Racing.

According to McLaren officials, Alonso was frustrated at the lack of track time on a beautiful day in Indianapolis.

The 39-year-old left the track without speaking to the media, but that was part of McLaren’s plan to “lay low” on Opening Day.

INDYCARNBC Sports.com got an exclusive interview with McLaren team principal Gil de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 when he was with Team Penske.

“I think the plan here was to run more than we did,” de Ferran said. “Obviously, I’m disappointed and a little frustrated we had the issue in the afternoon. We are trying our best to understand what the problem is. So far, it’s baffling. We lost the entire afternoon session.

“This morning was a bit of a warmup. He still needed to do a bit of a run to complete his refresher with a conservative setup on the car.

“Not running this afternoon really hurts us. Here in Indy, when the weather is good, you want to be out there, and today was a day of good weather.

“We have a lot of capable guys. We will get on top of this matter and see.”

De Ferran and McLaren had not determined the cause of the electrical issue Tuesday night as they continued to scour over reams and reams of data on their computers.

NBCSports.com was allowed into the team’s garage in Gasoline Alley as lead engineer Andy Brown continued to look for the cause of the issue.

“If we understood what the issue is, it would have been fixed,” de Ferran said. “That’s why it’s so baffling. It’s an electrical issue; not mechanical.

“It’s been a difficult start. No doubt about that. We’ll see what we can do.”

In 2017 when “Alonso Mania” swept through the “Month of May” as Alonso skipped the Grand Prix of Monaco to compete in the Indianapolis 500, he was a quick study. He got up to speed in a hurry, qualified fifth on the grid and led 27 laps in the race before his Honda engine blew up on Lap 180.

Times have changed in 2019, though.

In 2017, McLaren partnered with Honda team Andretti Autosport, one of the top teams in the NTT IndyCar Series. Andretti provided Alonso with one of their top cars along with an outstanding collection of crew members and engineers who completely understood how to set up a competitive car for the 500-Mile Race.

In 2019, McLaren is doing it on its own.

INDYCARUnable to continue with Honda, McLaren is powered by Chevrolet and has an engineering alliance with Carlin Racing, one of the smaller teams in the Chevy camp.

“We are under no illusions how big a challenge we have,” de Ferran admitted. “We are racing against some really good teams. I’m under the opinion two heads think better than one. We have a lot of experienced people in the group, but we haven’t run together as a team ourselves everyone together before. Any help that we can get is better than no help.

“This is our crew. There are some really talented guys, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.

“I don’t think of those expectations. Even when I was a driver, I’d look at the situation I’m in, try to understand he weaknesses and opportunities we have and tackle them head-on. If you do that in a consistent basis every day and successfully, usually the results will come.”

As for Alonso’s response to a disappointed Opening Day, de Ferran said, “He is very aware we needed the running. It was not a happy moment for anyone on the team, including Fernando.”

Wednesday will be a new day for the teams at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s another seven hours of practice from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time.

McLaren and Alonso know they have some time to make out after a lost day of practice on Tuesday.

“One step at a time,” de Ferran said. “Hopefully, we’ll get on top of some of the issues we have today and get a fresh start and clean run on Wednesday.

“We need to review what we are going to do now. We lost three hours this afternoon. We have to develop the setup. We haven’t discussed exactly how we want to do the day on Wednesday.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has said a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in 2020 is dependent on how well the operation does at Indianapolis in May. It would be a two-car team and some drivers, such as Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, already have been considered as possibilities within the inner bubble of IndyCar.

When asked if he had an eye on future drivers for a full-time operation, de Ferran said it’s not his primary focus.

“Right now, I have my hands full,” de Ferran said. “Right now, our key focus is doing the best we can in the Indianapolis 500.”

There remains time for Alonso and McLaren to overcome Tuesday’s disappointment.

From Tuesday to Thursday of this week, IndyCar teams and drivers work on “Race Setup” with lots of full-tank runs and group runs to see how this car will work in traffic.

Teams start to trim for “qualifying setup” Friday because they are given extra boost. Teams work in reverse order to the month because they believe it is much more important to be ready for the race in case of rain. Speed setups can be handled in the “Fast Friday” and Saturday morning practice sessions.

“If the weather holds, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to recover from a day like today,” de Ferran said.

INDYCARNBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold’s “INDYCAR Pass” will combine to provide 13 hours of Indy 500 qualifying coverage, beginning Saturday, May 18, exclusively for “INDYCAR Pass” subscribers from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. ET before shifting to NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET. The final qualifying session, which will determine which driver earns the pole position, airs Sunday, May 19, from 12-3 p.m. ET on NBC.

NBC Sports Gold is NBC Sports’ direct-to-consumer live streaming subscription service and will live stream 60 hours of INDYCAR content this month. A special $15 discount is now being offered, reducing the season-long subscription price to $39.99.

Practice coverage for this year’s Indy 500 begins with a seven-hour session on Tuesday, May 14 on “INDYCAR Pass.” In all, “INDYCAR Pass” will exclusively live stream 29.5 hours of Indy 500 practice coverage between May 14-18. NBCSN will also provide coverage of some practice sessions.

NBCSN and “INDYCAR Pass” will also combine to provide coverage of Indy 500 Carb Day, the IPL 500 Festival Parade, and the Indy 500 Victory Banquet.

The 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be the first ever on NBC. Coverage begins on Sunday, May 26, with eight hours of programming: a pre-race show on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET; race coverage at 11 a.m. ET on NBC; and a post-race show at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.