Fernando Alonso’s only wise choice for Indy 500 leads back to McLaren

Mark Thompson, Getty Images

If and when two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso finally announces he has a ride for the 104th Indianapolis 500, it likely will be on the same team where his search began.

The wisest choice for Alonso would be at Arrow McLaren Racing SP, where he would be reunited with McLaren CEO Zak Brown and Sporting Director Gil de Ferran.

It’s not only the wisest choice, it’s likely Alonso’s only choice.

First, a little background.

Alonso was a fan favorite after his fairly successful run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017. That was with McLaren Honda Andretti, a team that combined McLaren’s backing with team owner Michael Andretti’s crew and engineering support. Most of Alonso’s crew members and engineers were from Andretti Autosport and the driver from Spain got up to speed fast and stayed there.

It all worked because McLaren then was a Honda team in Formula One, and Andretti Autosport was one of Honda’s top teams in IndyCar. Because both teams shared the same engine supplier, it was easy to put together the relationship and allow Alonso to skip the Grand Prix of Monaco – the premier event on the Formula One World Championship schedule.

As an Indy 500 rookie, Alonso won over the fans and was in contention to win the race, leading 27 laps and running seventh before his engine conked out with 21 laps left in the race. Alonso vowed he would return to Indy because he had some “unfinished business” and went back to Formula One.

By the end of 2017, however, the relationship between McLaren and Honda had deteriorated to the point where the driver was highly critical of his underpowered engine in F1. He radioed to his crew that it was “a GP2” engine during one infamous transmission. McLaren also publicly ridiculed the Honda engine and at the end of the year, McLaren and Honda split.

Honda officials in Japan believed McLaren breached its loyalty with the manufacturer and prohibited its companies from ever doing business again with McLaren. When McLaren attempted to form a team with Andretti Autosport late in 2018, it was blocked by Honda Japan, leading team owner Michael Andretti to consider a jump to Chevrolet when the Honda contract expired in 2019.

HPD and American Honda officials were able to convince Andretti to stay, and a new deal was announced at Mid-Ohio last July.

McLaren wanted back into IndyCar but would have to be a Chevrolet team to do that. The top Chevy team in IndyCar, Team Penske, said no to a combined effort with McLaren because the team’s business model is to promote its brand of sponsors, not McLaren’s.

McLaren thought it could do an Indy 500 effort on its own, so in 2019, it ordered an Indy car from Dallara that was built and prepared at McLaren’s base in Woking, England. It created an engineering alliance with Carlin Racing, one of the smallest Chevrolet operations in IndyCar, but the two sides were familiar because of Trevor Carlin’s success in European junior formula racing.

The combination was like the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It wasn’t long before the McLaren/Carlin/Alonso combination hit the iceberg, and it sank in spectacular fashion when Alonso was the last driver bumped from the field during last year’s “Last Row Shootout” on Bump Day by Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing.

Alonso was in his final season as “McLaren Ambassador” in 2019 and had a deal in WEC racing with Toyota. When Alonso’s McLaren contract expired on Dec. 31, 2019, he was free to negotiate with any team of his choosing.

Prior to that, however, McLaren purchased an ownership stake in Arrow Schmidt Peterson to become Arrow McLaren SP. That team was already a long-time Honda operation, and in order to make that deal work, it broke its Honda contract with one year remaining to become a Chevrolet operation.

Alonso was not interested in a full-time IndyCar deal, and Arrow McLaren SP parked popular veteran James Hinchcliffe of Canada for two young drivers and the past two Indy Lights champions, Pato O’Ward of Mexico and Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida.

Brown and de Ferran both said they would consider a third driver for the Indy 500.

Alonso had put together a deal to drive a sixth Andretti Autosport Honda for the 2020 Indy 500, but that deal fell apart and was never announced. It was presumed by many that Honda Japan said no. Andretti, perhaps showing loyalty to his manufacturing partner, said Wednesday in Indianapolis that was not the case. He said Alonso and Andretti Autosport “could not come to terms” without explaining what those terms were.

Hinchcliffe, who was parked by Arrow McLaren SP, will compete in the ride that was put together for Alonso at Indy by Andretti. He will run three races, including the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 104th Indianapolis 500 and at Texas Motor Speedway in June.

Alonso revealed on his Instagram that he had a deal for the Indy 500 but did not reveal the team.

It’s not hard to figure out through process of elimination.

The top two Chevrolet teams at Indy are Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing. Team Penske president Tim Cindric said the team will not expand to five cars for the Indy 500, and Carpenter told NBC Sports.com last week in Austin, Texas, that he is not adding a fourth car for Alonso.

Of the other Chevrolet teams including A.J. Foyt Racing, Carlin and Juncos, they do not appear to be in a position to give Alonso the kind of ride he desires. Dreyer & Reinbold is an Indy 500 one-off program that has been competitive in the past, but another part-time effort probably doesn’t fit Alonso’s profile as an Indy 500-only driver.

So, the obvious and only choice is for Alonso to be reunited with Brown and de Ferran on the latest version of McLaren’s IndyCar effort at Arrow McLaren SP. He will have a much better chance at making the starting lineup and contending in the race because the operation co-owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson is a full-time entrant in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Though it’s the same team that failed to get Hinchcliffe into the 2018 Indy 500, INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske announced changes to Bump Day last week. The “Last Row Shootout” increases from 60 to 75 minutes with cars that are bumped out allowed more than one attempt. That will change the dynamic from Alonso having just one attempt in the Last Row Shootout last year.

Putting together a third car for Alonso would be easy for Arrow McLaren SP. Zak Brown has said he is interested in talking about it. Schmidt said he hasn’t discussed it but believes Alonso needs to be in the Indy 500.

If that happens, Alonso’s lengthy, circuitous route to his Indy 500 ride will end up right where it started.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianpaolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”

Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.

Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500