INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver
INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver

McLaren seeks to overcome setbacks at Indianapolis 500

1 Comment

INDIANAPOLIS – If Fernando Alonso and McLaren thought they got off to a slow start in Tuesday’s “Opening Day” for the 103rdIndianapolis, then Wednesday’s second round of practice was downright miserable.

It was potentially devastating to his chances to have a competitive Indy 500 in 2019.

He lost control of his McLaren Chevrolet at 12:34 p.m. on Wednesday when it drifted high into Turn 2 and brushed the outside wall. It then rebounded across the track and slammed into the infield retaining wall.

“It was just pure understeer on the car,” Alonso explained. “Even if I lifted the throttle on the entry to the corner it was not enough. I lost completely the front aero. The wall came too close and too quickly. Unfortunately, it happened today, and we will lose a little bit of running time again. I’m sorry for the team.

“We’ll learn and come back stronger tomorrow.”

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

McLaren took the damaged car back to its garage in Gasoline Alley to assess the damage. It was determined the primary car should be moved aside in favor of the backup car that was used at a recent test at Texas Motor Speedway.

McLaren IndyCar president Bob Fernley said both are McLaren-built cars, but the one that will hit the track on Thursday was built by McLaren at the Carlin Racing garages in Indianapolis.

The chassis that got damaged will be rebuilt and prepared as a spare car by Friday time, in time for this weekend’s qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

INDYCAR PhotoFernley confirmed the issue that sidelined the team on Tuesday was an alternator problem. According to several crewmembers, there was some debris inside the alternator that kept it from functioning properly.

“Chevy will look into that,” Fernley said.

Two full days of practice have gone by, and McLaren has yet to have more than a few hours of running time. That has set the team back in terms of preparations for this weekend’s qualifications for the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

“You can never have enough laps,” Fernley said. “It’s not helpful in the process, but I think, unfortunately, it’s part of the Speedway program. I think we’ve reacted pretty quickly. The boys are doing a great job and we’ll be back out tomorrow.

“We definitely thought we were going to have a good run. And it was looking very good. Very steady, so it’s unfortunate.”

Unlike 2017 when McLaren formed an alliance with Andretti Autosport that gave the program a fully prepared Honda with crew and engineering support from Andretti’s IndyCar operation, this year is much different.

McLaren is attempting to create its own NTT IndyCar Series program. It is a Chevrolet operation because Honda officials in Japan prohibited Honda Performance Development (HPD) from doing business with McLaren after its Formula One team disparaged Honda’s F1 effort in 2017.

“I think this is an enormous challenge under any other circumstances,” Fernley said. “But it’s something McLaren has to do because what it’s done, it’s given them the foundation for the future.

“Working with Michael (Andretti) is fantastic, but you don’t learn anything. And that’s what you need to be able to do. In order for McLaren to take those next steps, they need the knowledge and foundation of what we’ve been doing the past few months.”

INDYCAR Photo by Walt KuhnMcLaren has an engineering agreement with Carlin Racing and can share data and other information, but the cars are built and prepared by McLaren.

“I don’t think we can rely on Carlin at all,” Fernley said. “They’ve got three cars to run. We have enough crew to do this ourselves.

“The Carlin part of it was mainly about logistics and helping us in the beginning, particularly with equipment. What we’ve had to do to set up a team, they did a year earlier. So, they were the nearest to what we’ve been having to do. So, they were very, very helpful.

“I think it’s slightly bigger challenge, not necessarily in terms of the organizational elements of it. The technology has moved on. All of which we expected, but all were a little more challenging than we thought it would be.”

Zak Brown, McLaren’s CEO, told NBC Sports.com in April that a full-time NTT IndyCar Series effort in 2020 depended on how well the team performed at the Indianapolis 500. If the team is able to overcome the obstacles it has been dealt in the first two days of practice, that might prove the mettle of this operation.

“I think what it will show, and I’m absolutely sure we will overcome the obstacles, is how good a little team we’ve built in a short period of time,” Brown said Wednesday. “The guys have worked incredibly hard to get it where it is today. And now they’re going to have to work very hard now to get us back on track again.

INDYCAR Photo“A lot depends on how tomorrow goes. The annoying part for us is we’ve had two perfect days weather-wise, and we’ve lost a little in both those days. But it’s one of those things. You have to recover from it and get on with it. It shows the depth of the team to recover from something like this. Tomorrow we’ll brush ourselves down and start all over again.

“Every has to have one (that first hit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). We’re looking at it like that. It’s part of IndyCar. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Fernley has no doubt that once the backup car is repaired and Alonso returns to the race course on Thursday morning, he will be fully focused on getting up to speed.

“You never faze him,” Fernley said. “The beauty of it is he’ll dust himself down — of course there’s a little knock in confidence — but he’ll get a few laps under his belt and be back to normal.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

Leave a comment

In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
Leave a comment

McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500