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.

Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”