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.”

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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.

Rossi remains “The Story” in INDYCAR in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – 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 of the race, 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 missing from deeming Rossi’s race complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pits 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 one-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 third three of the four 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 frontstraight 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 just 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-of-a-second behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he was never 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 NBC Sports.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 the 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 like with Honda. Both him 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 NBC Sports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there, I think we’re getting there,” Andretti said. “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 10 years from now 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, that 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.”