INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver
INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver

McLaren seeks to overcome setbacks at Indianapolis 500

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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.”

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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.”

Rossi remains ‘The Story’ in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”