Ryan: How the unthinkable happened to Fernando Alonso and McLaren

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INDIANAPOLIS – A month before his nightmare unfortunately came true Sunday, Zak Brown was asked about the seemingly unthinkable.

A month before an embarrassing week of mechanical problems, setup gaffes and fruitless scrambling at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the CEO of McLaren Racing, standing in the Long Beach Convention Center while readying for a sports car race, was asked about the worst-case scenario for his fledgling IndyCar team.

How devastating would it be to miss the Indianapolis 500 with Fernando Alonso?

“I don’t even want to think about it,” Brown said before pausing and laughing nervously.

“But I think about it.”

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

Brown will have too much time to think about it this week as preparations continue for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 without McLaren and Alonso, who dramatically was bumped from the field Sunday.

It prompted another question for Brown.

Did his team woefully underestimate the monumental challenge of taming one of the most difficult racetracks in the world?

Whether it’s Bobby Rahal in 1993, Team Penske’s cars in 1995 or James Hinchcliffe last year, Indy is notorious for humbling drivers and teams with impressive pedigrees like McLaren’s (20 constructor and driver championships and 182 victories in Formula One).

But Brown, an American with a wildly successful background in producing sponsorships across NASCAR, IndyCar and F1, knew that history, too.

“We’ve got a pretty good driver, but it’s going to be tough,” Brown said. “We’ve all seen Penske not qualify. We’ve seen Rahal not qualify. So I think to go there and underestimate it, which we’re not doing, that would be a mistake.”

So perhaps Brown and McLaren didn’t underestimate the Indy 500.

But they overestimated the equipment and personnel that they assembled to put Alonso in the field. The firing of Bob Fernley, who was chosen to lead McLaren’s Indy 500 team six months ago, was indicative of that, but there were other glaring red flags (many of which were documented in exhaustive detail Monday by the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer).

Alonso made a successful Indy 500 debut in 2017 by leading 27 laps in a Honda for Andretti Autosport, which routinely is an Indy 500 powerhouse. But because its F1 relationship with Honda ended poorly, McLaren was forced to put Alonso in a Chevrolet this time.

That limited the team’s options for alliances because Penske, which fields the top Chevys, doesn’t partner with other IndyCar teams. The next-best option would have been Ed Carpenter Racing, but McLaren went with Carlin’s second-year IndyCar team in part because of the connections and history of working with Carlin (also founded in England) across myriad European series.

“It makes it very easy for us to work with them,” Fernley said while explaining the move in March. “Our systems are very similar in the way we operate. We can integrate the programs much easier. It was a good fit for us.”

Alonso and the Carlin cars of Pato O’Ward and Max Chilton were the three that failed to qualify Sunday.

But regardless of its alliances, or 11th-hour help for qualifying from powerhouses Andretti and Penske, the foundation for Indy success seemed largely absent for McLaren.

Behind the scenes, there were many whispers in Gasoline Alley about glaring signs that Alonso’s team lacked the necessary anticipation and experience to make the Indy 500.

The electrical problems that limited track time on the opening day of practice last week were only the beginning.

After Alonso crashed Wednesday, it took McLaren more than a day to have the backup car ready (compare that with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports putting James Hinchcliffe back on track less than three hours after his crash). When Sunday’s Last Row warmup began, McLaren inexplicably didn’t have Alonso’s car ready to take the green immediately, and there were major suspension problems when he eventually got on track a few minutes late.

Though Fernley had experience with working on Indy 500 cars in the 1980s, much has changed over the past three decades, and his vast background as an F1 executive clearly didn’t translate well to managing an NTT IndyCar team in the 21st century.

Winning the Indy 500 requires exhaustive preparation. The championship-caliber teams assign crew members to work solely on massaging their Indy 500 rides for optimum handling and speed.

The tricks of finding speed come in being so detail-oriented, which is the ultimate strength of Roger Penske and a major reason why his team has won 17 Indy 500s. It’s about having extra gearboxes ready for engine dyno testing and having your gearing sequenced well in advance.

It was evident McLaren (which made the curious move of building its two Indy 500 cars in two countries, one at its headquarters in England, the other at Carlin’s U.S.-based shop) didn’t have the details covered, and it was completely overmatched as a result.

When Alonso’s No. 66 was eliminated Sunday by unsponsored and underfunded Juncos Racing, which turned around a spartan backup car in less than a day after Kyle Kaiser crashed Friday, there were some who wanted to classify it as a massive upset on the scale of Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson.

But it didn’t feel like much of a surprise in the context of how last week unfolded with McLaren looking far from being a heavyweight in shape for fight night.

With the possible exception of Fast Friday, there was never a day when it seemed Alonso was even on the cusp of being comfortable.

There was a stark contrast to 2017 when Alonso walked into a plug-and-play situation with Andretti, whose Dallara-Hondas were the class of the field. The only variable then was the oval inexperience of the two-time F1 champion, who naturally acquitted himself well.

This season, the variables were the car and team, which woefully underdelivered.

As evidenced by the massive hospitality complex at the Brickyard and the team’s long list of sponsors, Brown is an expert in motorsports marketing. But he admittedly isn’t a competition guy, and he didn’t have the right equipment or people in place this month.

As McLaren weighs a return to Indy next year — or beyond that, perhaps an eventual full-time entry in IndyCar — that’s what Brown will be thinking about now that the once-unthinkable has happened.

Eli Tomac wins Houston Supercross: Hunter Lawrence takes early 250 East lead

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With his 47th career victory and third of the 2023 season in Houston, Eli Tomac closed to within one win of tying Ricky Carmichael for third on the all-time Monster Energy Supercross list.

Tomac rebounded from last week’s crash by earning the holeshot in both his heat and the Main. At the start of the big show, he couldn’t shake Aaron Plessinger in the first four minutes and actually was in the process of losing the lead as a red flag waved for a crash involving Tomac’s teammate Dylan Ferrandis when he overjumped an obstacle and landed on Ken Roczen’s back fender as they raced for eighth.

“That was a tough race,” Tomac told NBC Sports’ Will Christien, referencing his loss to Chase Sexton in the heat. “And honestly, I was just beat down after that heat race and was searching quite a bit and was basically losing speed everywhere. I just rode better, straight up in the Main. I felt better.”

In their heat, Sexton passed Tomac at the two-minute mark and then simply rode away from the field. At the end, he had an almost eight-second gap on Tomac.

“It wasn’t great by any means,” Sexton told Jason Thomas. “I feel like the strengths I had all day, I really lagged in the Main event between the whoop and the sand section. I think I could have walked through it faster. It was still a good ride; it wasn’t great. I expected after the heat race he would be fired up.”

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Anaheim 2

Jason Anderson scored his second consecutive pole, but he was not happy to finish third behind the two points’ leaders.

“We should be thankful every time we get to be up here,” Anderson said. “They’re making it tough on me, but all I can do is give my best.”

Tomac had to withstand a red flag and the distant second place finish in his heat to win the Houston Supercross race. In the post-race conference, he indicated that he did not make any changes to the bike and simply rode better.

Aaron Plessinger and Cooper Webb rounded out the top five.

Ferrandis was fitted with a neck brace, but still able to walk to the medical cart. He was still being evaluated by the medical staff as the night came to a close.


In 250s Hunter Lawrence entered the 250 East opener as the consensus favorite to win the championship this year with Christian Craig making the move into 450s and his brother Jett Lawrence in the West division. He answered quickly with a huge lead in Heat 1, but it almost went awry in the Main.

Lawrence got a good start, but he was passed early in the race by two-time MXGP champion (2020, 2022) Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut this week. Vialle passed Lawrence on the first lap. When Lawrence tried to pass him back, Vialle scrubbed speed off a jump and pushed Lawrence wide, over the Tuff Blox.

Championships are made out of Lawrence’s response. He kept his composure and did not overcorrect before methodically working his way to the front.

“We had a little off track excursion. I wasn’t sure how hard across Tom was coming so I thought I’ll just go left, but then saw that was the side of the track. Thankfully I didn’t hit the Tuff Blox and got back on track safely. … Good start; put myself in position.”

Click here for full 250 East Main Results

Making a move from the 450 class to 250s, Max Anstie had immediate success. He finished second in his heat behind Jordon Smith and lined up with a great gate pick. He had to overtake Vialle in the opening laps and lost ground on Lawrence, that cost enough time to keep him from pressing Lawrence. This is Anstie’s first podium in the United States

“Honestly, I’ve dreamed of this for a long time to come up on these steps and man it’s a great feeling. I’ve really enjoyed the day and being on this 250, I feel like an 18-year-old kid. Everyday I’m learning.”

Smith backed up his heat win with a podium finish.

“It feels good to be back up here again,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time; a lot of injuries.”

Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his debut in the 250 class was not unfounded. He finished fourth in his heat to advance to directly into the Main. During the early laps, he was circling the track in a podium position until a minor mistake sent him off the box. In the closing laps, he narrowly made an aggressive pass on Jeremy Martin and narrowly missed the podium with a fourth-place finish.

Martin held on to round out the top five.

Vialle was running in a podium position when went down with a 1:30 left on the clock. He ended his night seventh.

Chance Hymas was also making his 250 debut and scored a top-10 in eighth.

2023 Race Recaps

Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

Houston coverage

Houston by the numbers
Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list